Given that the country is facing huge problems and still digging out from the worst financial crisis since the Depression, some might expect that the seemingly endless debates and breathless saturation of media coverage of it all would converge into a real discussion of our major problems. But only if they haven't been paying attention.
Though the country is sorely in need of solutions, and the public hungry for real debate, that's not what was served up in Iowa -- either by the candidates or the vast pack of media covering their every word. What we got instead was a deluge of attack ads, largely financed by the super PACs allowed by the Citizens United decision. "The real winner of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses may not be any of the Republican candidates," writes Steven Rosenfeld on AlterNet, "but a new political animal that is ugly, loud, anti-democratic and coming to your state in the upcoming primaries and caucuses: the super PAC."
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 264 super PACs have been spawned for the 2012 race and they've already spent almost half of the $32 million they've raised. In Iowa, nearly $13 million was spent by super PACs, with $4.6 million being spent on behalf of Mitt Romney. And because of reporting loopholes, of the dozen outside PACs that flooded Iowa with ads, only two have disclosed their donors, so Iowa voters, along with those in New Hampshire and South Carolina, don't get the pleasure of learning who is responsible for such elevated political discourse.
And what was all that money spent on? According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, 45 percent of the ads were negative ads focused on Newt Gingrich. It's how the new politics works. Of course, negative ads have always existed, but now they can make up a huge portion of a candidate's messaging, and can be outsourced to shadowy outside groups. It's what allowed Mitt to neutralize Newt while he traipsed around unctuously reciting lyrics to "America the Beautiful" and making corny jokes about "corn as an amber wave of grain."
The results show that negative advertising works -- if your definition of "works" is driving up an opponent's negatives while also driving up voters' cynicism, resignation, and despair about their political system. As 57-year-old retiree and Iowa resident Jill Jepsen told the Los Angeles Times, "I can't listen to it. It makes me sick."
She's hardly alone. Though the media portrayed the caucuses as a titanic struggle to see which candidate would channel the fury of Iowa Republicans who were desperate to unseat President Obama, the facts tell a different story. Romney might have eked out a victory, but he did so with the lowest percentage of the vote of any Iowa winner since the caucuses began, and even got a smaller percentage of the vote than he did in 2008.
All told, the total number of Iowans that showed up was only 122,000, which translates into 19.9 percent of registered Republicans, down from 21.1 in 2008. To put those numbers in perspective, nearly twice as many -- 240,000 -- showed up at the Democratic caucuses in 2008. "Given the Republican enthusiasm for getting rid of the Obama administration and the wind at their backs after the 2010 election," said Drake University professor Dennis Goldford, "to me that was a disappointing turnout." Perhaps people have more on their minds than the HPV vaccine, contraception, which federal agencies to close down, the march of European Socialism, and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, as brilliantly managed as they apparently were.
According to the latest stats, unemployment stands at 8.5 percent, down only .6 of a percentage point since August. The number of long-term unemployed barely changed at 5.6 million, which accounts for over 42 percent of the jobless. The employment-population ratio was unchanged from the month before at 58.5 percent. And almost half of all Americans can now be classified as either in poverty or low income.
Last week in the New York Times, Jason DeParle detailed five major studies that have recently shown the decline in economic mobility in the United States, which now lags behind most European countries and Canada. "It's becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries," said Brookings economist Isabel Sawhill. "I don't think you'll find too many people who will argue with that."
But neither will you find too many of the candidates talking about it. Former George Bush aide John Bridgeland, who helped found Opportunity Nation, professed himself "shocked" by America's standing relative to Europe and Canada. "Republicans will not feel compelled to talk about income inequality," he said. "But they will feel a need to talk about a lack of mobility -- a lack of access to the American Dream."
Well, if they're feeling that need, they're doing a hell of a job resisting it. Sure they talk about jobs, but mostly in a clownish contest for who can make the most outrageous claims about President Obama's European Kenyan Outsider Un-American Socialism. That might feed the anger of a small minority of Americans, but it does little to convince the majority that any of the candidates have a handle on the economic problems we're facing.
To note just one of these largely ignored problems, as HuffPost's Arthur Delaney reported, in the long lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, the candidates "[had] nothing to say about the big, bipartisan foreclosure fraud settlement sought by the Hawkeye State's top law enforcement official." As Arthur explains, the Iowa Attorney General has been the leader of a group of state-level AGs negotiating a settlement with the big banks over fraud and foreclosure abuse. Many think the settlement is too soft. Others are in support. But the GOP candidates for president? They're just silent. A database search for "Iowa," "caucuses," and "foreclosures" results in not a single comment from a candidate or one of their surrogates.
Something else you didn't hear them talk about is Arthur's report on heating oil subsidies being cut back just as winter takes hold. The White House and Congress agreed to cut the assistance by 25 percent, or $1.2 billion. What that means is that fully one million people will not have as much heat this winter. "I got the temperature down to 65, and I got to keep a jacket on and a couple of sweaters in the house," said 81-year-old Ralph Olivieri of Coventry, R.I., who, along with his wife Alexis, will use up their remaining heating oil in a few weeks. Maybe they can warm themselves with visions of how well the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics were managed.
Perhaps this disconnect -- between what people are really concerned about and what the candidates and the media following them are talking about -- is contributing to the fact that, according to Gallup, for all of 2011, an average of only 17 percent of Americans were satisfied with the way things are going.
And perhaps it's why Congress ended 2011 with an 11 percent approval rating, a record low. Or why, according to an NBC/WSJ poll, only 27 percent say they think favorably about the Republican Party. The Democrats aren't much better at 32 percent.
What these numbers -- and those about voter turnout in Iowa -- show is that, yes, Americans are unhappy with the economy, and many are unhappy (for various reasons) with President Obama's response to the economy. But simply pointing that out isn't enough to convince voters a candidate can do any better. What voters want, and what the country needs, are solutions -- not another blizzard of cowardly, anonymously-funded attack ads.
So what did we get as the circus moved to New Hampshire? As Jason Linkins noted while live-blogging the first of two New Hampshire debates: "The debate did not 'pivot to jobs' until its last third, and it ended with a CNN-type goofball question, essentially, 'What would you rather be doing tonight?'"
In fact, Rick Santorum is one of the few candidates who has made an attempt to talk about working people and economic mobility, but in one of his first post-Iowa New Hampshire rallies he got into a colloquy with a student about gay marriage. As Joe Klein pointed out on Hardball, "during the course of this entire hour he spent with them, he never mentioned his manufacturing plan or his economic policy." And that's because, as Howard Fineman pointed out, opposing gay marriage "is what he cares most passionately about." According to the New York Times' Michael Shear, Santorum's passion didn't go over well: "The students booed Mr. Santorum during the 10-minute exchange and loudly booed when he left the room."
Unfortunately, as the unreal reality show finishes up in New Hampshire and heads down to South Carolina, the disconnect widens, the cynicism grows, and the resignation spreads.