New York Daily News

The ho-hum race for the White House

No gripping issues

- Richard Cohen

If the presidenti­al campaign were a TV program, it would have been canceled by now. Viewers have clicked off, stupefied by a campaign that has one overriding issue, the economy, and virtually nothing else. What started out with such energy — a “Gong Show” of debates, one bizarre front-runner after another — has settled into a slog in which two “firsts,” an AfricanAme­rican and a Mormon, are proving the efficacy of the melting pot: They have both been reduced to gruel.

Over at the television networks, the ratings tell the tale. One network news executive says they’re seeing viewers flee politics. There was a flash of interest around the time of the Republican debates but little since. When politics come up, the ratings show a real dip in viewership — presumably a rush to the bathroom or the kitchen. (Could this be a cause of the obesity epidemic?)

Why is this happening? Some of it no doubt is due to the traditiona­l American antipathy toward politician­s, government and anything that lacks a goalpost. We consider it a triumph of Jeffersoni­an democracy when 60% of us vote, but usually the figure is lower — 57.1% for President in 2008 and 37.8% in the last congressio­nal elections.

But other factors are at work this year. First and foremost is the paucity of gripping issues. There is only one, the economy, and it will do what it wants. If it improves, President Obama will win; if it worsens, Mitt Romney will win.

Just to add to the dreariness, the economy seems to reflect the candidates’ personalit­ies. It gets a little bit better and then a little bit worse and then maybe doesn’t move at all. Things are better than they once were but worse than they used to be. The recession has receded, but the promised boom has gone bust. This is the nowhere economy — neither boom nor bust nor much good to anyone.

Romney, therefore, is content not to make waves. He steers clear of the arch conservati­ve positions he was forced to take in the primaries, revealing as little of himself as possible. He is content to let the lousy economy campaign for him. He emphasizes his chard ohen bogus credential­s as a jobs creator when what he was, of course, was a profit creator. He has vast expertise in the private sector, but so did Herbert Hoover and so didn’t, among many others, Eisenhower, Johnson, Kennedy, Clinton, both Roosevelts and — icon or not — Reagan. Giving speeches does not create jobs.

Adding to the general political languor are the personalit­ies of both candidates. They are withdrawn, withholdin­g people, with little of the politician’s desperate need for the company of others. Obama is a paradox: an exciting story, an unexciting man. His charisma, so evident on the stump, has a brief half-life. He somehow covers it, like the snuffer over a candle, and it casts no glow. So this political season has become like sports — the domain of the fan. You can follow it on its dedicated cable channels — Fox News, MSNBC, etc. — which have become versions of fan radio.

Rutgers University historian David Greenberg noted in a New Republic essay this year the synergy between sports fandom and political fandom in which all opinions are valid and, of course, evanescent.

For all the blather, there’s not all that much the White House can do about the economy. It can nudge and it can tug, but the economy goes its own way. A jobs program would help, but Congress won’t pass it. More deficit spending would help, but Congress won’t allow it. The government is tied up in knots. It, too, waits for November.

This is a campaign of immense consequenc­e and, paradoxica­lly, torpor. It’s as if it is being conducted by men who will not — or cannot — control events but are waiting for events to control them. They campaign dutifully but dully, going through the motions until Election Day.

Maybe then they’ll get the audience back. In the meantime, America has gone for a beer.

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