There are plenty of things not to like about this year's presidential campaign, including how nasty and negative a mud fight it's become, with both sides engaging in shameless distortion.
But here's the worst thing about this presidential campaign: No matter what happens on election day, there's little hope of a good outcome.
For most of the last four years, Washington has been mired in political gridlock, deadlocked between Republicans who want to slash government and keep taxes low and Democrats who are willing to trim government a bit but also want to raise taxes on the affluent.
That deadlock has sent us careening toward one fiscal cliff after another. It's made it virtually impossible for Congress to do anything more ambitious than writing short-term spending bills that merely kick the can down the road.
One purpose of elections is to break that kind of deadlock and send politicians a message about what direction voters want them to go. That's what happened in 2008, when President Obama won a mandate to pursue his vision of an activist government — and again in 2010, when voters decided that Obama had gone too far and handed the House of Representatives to Republicans.
But this year? It's unlikely voters will deliver a clear message.
The presidential polls have been balanced around the 50% mark for months. Strategists in both parties say the outcome is likely to be a squeaker. The morning after election day, the winner, whoever he is, will declare that voters have given him a ringing mandate to do whatever he promised — but it won't be true. Polls show that on most of the major issues the candidates are arguing about — tax rates, the size of government, the repeal of Obama's healthcare plan — the public is divided.
Even worse, Congress is likely to remain deadlocked as well. The most recent forecast by Charlie Cook, the dean of congressional election soothsayers, suggests that the Senate will end up around 50-50, too close for either party to control with ease. In the House of Representatives, Cook projects that Democrats could gain as many as eight seats, but that's far short of the 25 they need to take control away from SpeakerJohn A. Boehner(R-Ohio).
In the absence of a clear-cut victory for either side, we face two possible scenarios.
In one outcome, Obama narrowly wins reelection and spends at least two years wrestling with truculent conservatives in the House, who will be determined to stand in his way as never before.
In the other, Romney narrowly wins election and spends at least two years wrestling with truculent conservatives in the House, who will interpret his election as a popular mandate for a tea party program whether it is or not. He could have a Democratic Senate to wrestle with as well.
The almost inevitable result? More gridlock. Neither Obama nor Romney has much of a track record negotiating with wily legislators. Obama tried to work out a fiscal "grand bargain" with Boehner last year, but the effort collapsed in a flurry of finger-pointing that made both men look weak. Romney's single term as governor of Massachusetts produced one major piece of legislation, his 2006 healthcare law, but he has since renounced that kind of bipartisanship. Many of his other proposals went nowhere because he had a CEO's aversion to bargaining with the state Legislature, according to "The Real Romney," a biography by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman.
Could anything change these doleful projections?
If either party wins a landslide and a genuine mandate, sure. Or if Obama emerges from the campaign with a new set of Clintonesque negotiating skills. Or if the militants of the tea party are chastened by a narrow Republican presidential win and a loss in the Senate. But none of those things seems likely — especially a chastened tea party.
Polls show that most voters don't want a rigidly ideological government of either left or right; they want practical problem-solving somewhere in the center, even if they aren't sure where that center should be. When the Pew Research Center asked voters this year if they wanted "political leaders who are willing to make compromises in order to get the job done," a whopping 80% said yes — including 68% of Republicans.
But the rules of American politics are stacked against centrists and compromisers these days. Obama won in 2008 partly by promising a post-partisan agenda, but his own liberal instincts and the opposition of Republicans got in the way; he's not making that promise anymore. And Romney never made it.
In a discussion among voters sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center this month, a group of suburban Milwaukee women — one of the potential swing groups in this election — sounded disappointed in both presidential candidates and in the political system as a whole.
"In 2008 … I was real into it, but this year I'm not really into it," said Michelle Wilke, 38, an electrical assembly worker who was laid off from her job atHarley-Davidsonin 2009. "I just have a feeling that no matter what happens, it's not going to change."
She's probably right.