If the past is prologue, then the quality of the issues debated in the final month of the midterm congressional campaigns should be about as devoid of substance as what voters heard during the primaries. So says a new study of the American political system.
There are certainly a few Senate and House races that may turn on issues of war, immigration reform, jobs, the economy and federal spending – and the competing candidates’ differences. The outcome of those few races will likely determine whether Republicans regain control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in nearly a decade.
As two veteran journalists discovered in an exhaustive study of the 2014 primary season for the Brookings Institution, the campaign trail has become largely an information-free zone where political affiliations and party boilerplate count for far more than substantive discourse.
Or as Jill Lawrence and Walter Shapiro, the two political columnists enlisted for the “Primaries Project” noted Tuesday, “The closer you get the worse it looks.”
Lawrence and Shapiro said they attempted to discern patterns in the races and “tease out the internal issue debates among Republicans and Democrats.” They hoped to create a fuller picture of the midterm election cycle by carefully evaluating the statements, political ads and campaign websites of over 200 candidates in more than 60 House primary races.
What they learned should come as little surprise in an era of political polarization: The “nationalization of politics” had wiped out just about all originality in House races.
One exception was the impact of the Tea Party during the primary season. While far-right Tea Party challengers with their anti-government, anti-tax, anti-Obamacare rhetoric failed to unseat any GOP incumbents in the Senate, they did manage to score half a dozen victories in House contests that will assure them of congressional seats next year.
Beyond that, though, the races were largely paint-by-the-numbers partisan exercises that were either lacking in substantive discussions or marked by trivial attacks.
“What we did discover . . . were the fault lines in both parties and the areas of lockstep political conformity,” the journalists wrote.
“People are choosing their candidates based on the ‘D’ or ‘R’ after their names,” Lawrence said at a seminar on the findings yesterday at Brookings. “It’s a low-information environment. It’s not like they know exactly which faction of the party a candidate is from.”
The most striking finding, said Lawrence, was “how generic and standardized these races had become” and “how old and tired the party platforms are.”
The report is entitled “Phoning It In and Failing to Show: The Story of the 2014 House Primaries.” It provides hard-edged analyses of how the two parties danced around some of the most important issues of the day. Here’s what the journalists found:
Obamacare: Though President Obama’s signature health care law remains highly unpopular in the polls, “it has not risen to the point of inflaming half the nation,” much to the chagrin of conservatives, the authors found. Throughout the primary season, the ACA “was more like wallpaper” than a burning issue.
The party positions were so generic and consistent “that both sides seemed to be on automatic pilot.” A few Democrats reflected liberal displeasure with the law, but they were the exceptions to those who adopted a “mend it, don’t end it” approach that large majorities favored over scrapping the law. “In the Republican Party – so intent on killing Obamacare that Texas
Sen. Ted Cruz would have shut down the government rather than fund the law – adamant, even angry calls for full-out repeal were campaign boilerplate.”
The Economy: The economic stands taken by many in the primaries reinforced the “policy ruts” both parties have been in for decades. “Republicans are still living in the Reagan era, when small-government rhetoric (if not reality) was the answer to all questions,” Lawrence and Shapiro wrote. “Democrats are living at least partially in the New Deal, even though those programs badly need changes to avert a budget-busting nightmare.”
A few Democrats said they were open to reforming entitlements, but that did little to fire up the party faithful who vote in primaries. “The economy was second only to the Affordable Care Act in illuminating the vast gap between Democrats and Republicans,” the authors wrote.
Immigration Reform: The Democratic consensus on comprehensive immigration reform was “rendered almost invisible” in the primaries, where it wasn’t mentioned or the candidates said roughly the same thing. Candidates knew they would be accused of the “a” word—amnesty.
Yet “the volume level was high on the Republican side, the primary season unfolding against a din of anti-reform rhetoric and calls for draconian security,” Lawrence and Shapiro wrote. Some GOP candidates were very discerning or subtle in voicing their opinions, reflecting the economic and philosophical variations of their districts.
For example, “The level of opposition to immigration reform among Republicans was often inversely proportional to the importance of agriculture in a district, and the money spent on behalf of farmers and others reliant upon immigrant labor and skills.”
National Security and War: The primary season unfolded last spring and summer amid dramatic foreign policy crises – from Russia seizing Crimea in mid-March and Islamic militants spreading panic by overrunning Mosul in Iraq in mid-June. Yet “with the exception of paeans to Israel, congressional candidates in both parties almost completely ignored the world on the other side of the ocean,” the authors wrote.
“It was not so much isolationism as profound indifference,” they said. “Most candidates did not even discuss national security or international affairs on their campaign issues pages.” Moreover, 68 percent of Republican candidates and 79 percent of Democratic candidates didn’t take a position on defense spending. That is changing: Republicans see an advantage in raising national security issues after President Obama stepped up U.S. airstrikes against ISIS forces in northern Iraq and Syria.
NSA Surveillance: Revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of foreign nationals and U.S. citizens shocked the nation and triggered congressional oversight of the government’s Internet and telephone snooping. One might have expected this to be a topic of debate within each party.
“Yet, like defense spending, it was virtually ignored,” the authors wrote. “Three quarters of all Republican candidates and slightly more than three quarters of all Democratic candidates simply didn’t offer any opinion on the issue … Among Republicans, self-identified libertarian candidates talked about their opposition to NSA surveillance but they were the smallest faction among Republican candidates – and ultimately the least successful in the primaries.”
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