In every presidential campaign, momentary trends become all-consuming: Can Donald Trump get his mojo back? Can Ted Cruz build on his Iowa momentum? Can anyone stop Marco Rubio’s rise? Can Hillary Clinton hold off a surging Bernie Sanders in the months that follow Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary?
But it’s the issues that really matter, and that ultimately decide elections.
When you look at America, what do you see? What do you want it to be? And ultimately, how do you want to get there?
Regardless of party or candidate, what is driving the fascinating 2016 presidential race are two competing visions of America, two starkly different visions.
In one view, our nation is falling apart, the economy is dragging down millions of people, the military is weaker than ever, our foreign policy is a joke, we’re unprepared for terrorist attacks, and our religious principles are under threat.
In this vision, Americans face a greatly diminished future. And the culprits include immigrants here illegally, Wall Street, and an inept and too-big federal government.
The competing vision is of a country doing better than at the worst of the recession but still falling short. Proponents of this view are optimistic about our chances to rebound, and believe in the power of government to make a difference and give people the tools that can help them succeed.
One vision appeals to our fears, the other to the sense that our resiliency and ingenuity will lead to better times.
Whatever vision you ascribe to, we all must agree that many of these problems are real and must be solved no matter who wins in November.
Our immigration system is broken, and requires serious discussion and reform. Wall Street has become too powerful, and its greed must in some way be reined in. The federal government can be inept; witness the awful mismanagement of health care by the Department of Veterans Affairs. And our foreign policy can be confusing and confounding.
But looming over all of this, and tied into much of it, is the economy — as it is being experienced by regular Americans. Compared to the rest of the world, it’s doing pretty well, but people nevertheless are being left behind. How can this be?
Voters are worried. Among their concerns are:
n that the economy we have now is as good as it can get, and the profound changes that have wreaked havoc on so many will never be remedied in full;
n that people will get jobs but salaries will not rise, and those jobs will not be as good as the ones that they lost;
n that some jobs never will return, because of new technologies that make some workers unnecessary as well as greater numbers of skilled workers overseas who can be hired more cheaply;
n that our country is failing to train workers for the jobs that are available and for the ones that will be created in the coming years;
n that pursuing the education necessary for success leaves young people with so many college loans that they essentially graduate with mortgages;
n that this debt precludes them from starting their own households;
n that the upward ladder that once was the promise of America is irretrievably broken.
Add to all that the real and imagined impacts of immigration and the demographic changes reshaping the United States, and you have a toxic brew of anxiety and distress.
Several contenders have shrewdly tapped into this uncertainty, sometimes in raw and crude ways. But it’s not enough to identify problems and assign blame. A serious candidate for president must present specific ideas on how to solve them. And it is in the offering of solutions that the two competing visions are so critical.
Optimism leads people to think of creative ways to solve problems. It opens them up to new ideas and productive compromises, brings more energy to the process and enables the building of coalitions.
Pessimism typically leads to retrenchment. It invites a return to a past that cannot be recreated and a recycling of strategies that no longer can work.
But one’s vision cannot stand in the way of solutions. You might not believe in climate change or man’s role in creating it, for example, but you must have a plan to deal with rising sea levels, polluted water and dirty air.
We’re in an unappealing stage of the race now, where candidates engage in negativity, finger-pointing and chest-thumping to show how they’re different from their competitors.
As more candidates drop out of the race, and as more voters have their say, we hope the narrowing fields start focusing more on the issues and less on personalities. And that voters do the same.