In his last work, The Responsible Electorate (1966), the great scholar V.O. Key argued against the thinking of political scientists of his age that the mass public was too ill-informed to make wise decisions:

The victorious candidate…may regard his success as vindication of his beliefs about why voters vote as they do. And he may regard the swing of the vote to him as indubitably a response to the campaign positions he took, as an indication of the acuteness of his intuitive estimates of the mood of the people, and as a ringing manifestation of the esteem in which he is held by a discriminating public…

[However, t]he election returns establish only that the winner attracted a majority of the votes…they tell us precious little about why the plurality was his.

For a glaringly obvious reason, electoral victory cannot be regarded as necessarily a popular ratification of a candidate’s outlook. The voice of the people is but an echo. The output of an echo chamber bears an inevitable and invariable relation to the input. As candidates and parties clamor for attention and vie for popular support, the people’s verdict can be no more than a selective reflection from among the alternatives and outlooks presented to them. Even the most discriminating popular judgment can reflect only ambiguity, uncertainty, or even foolishness if those are the qualities of the input into the echo chamber. A candidate may win despite his tactics and appeals rather than because of them. If the people can choose only from among rascals, they are certain to choose a rascal. [Emphases Mine]

What does this mean in the context of 2012? Conservatives agree that this is the most consequential election of our lifetime. There are huge, existential issues that need to be adjudicated by the public. However, if neither side runs a candidate capable of making the stakes clear, the public will not be able to make a sound determination. It is just that simple.

Let’s review the main contenders among whom the public will choose.

We have Barack Obama, a man with absolutely zero interest in making plain the nature of the problems we face. He wants to make it seem like jobs are coming back, the deficit is under control, things are on the right track. Whether this is cynical positioning or mere delusion on his part is uncertain. It has been evident for some time that he and his advisors are prone to buying their own hyperbolic exaggerations about his greatness; so they might actually be convinced by propaganda such as this. Regardless, Team Obama cannot be counted upon to show the public exactly where we are -- in terms of the deficit, the economy, and the fast-changing relationship between individuals and the state.

What about the Republican side? Mitt Romney is no Tom Dewey in terms of his ideology. Dewey was a truly moderate Republican who tried to win national elections when Democrats were a nationwide majority. As for Romney, I believe that he is, in his gut, a free market conservative, a good man, and a potentially solid president. Much of this is a contested notion, for sure, but I do believe that much as LBJ had to be a conservative in the Senate because he represented Texas, Romney tacked farther toward the center in Massachusetts than he would as president.

Regardless of who the “real Romney” is, he sure sounds a lot like Dewey spouting meaningless platitudes in the 1948 campaign. No big ideas from Romney. No talk from him about the deficit or what to do about it in any of these debates. Instead, it’s a turgid 59-point economic plan, lame slogans like “Believe in America,” and an appeal to biography. He might have Reagan's jawline, but his ideas lack the boldness of the Gipper's across-the-board tax cut.

Finally, we have Newt Gingrich, the so-called outsider of this campaign. Of course, Gingrich is only an outsider now because insider Republicans ejected him some 14 years ago. An election in which he is front-and-center will not be about the big issues, but about his fitness to serve in the nation’s highest office. And Gingrich’s grandiosity seems inconsistent with true conservatism, especially in a moment such as this. When we have a government that does too much, do we really want a president who has a new idea every minute about another project for the feds to take on?

Some people wonder about the polls that show Americans largely ignorant as to the nature of our deficit crisis. Cut foreign aid and pork barrel spending, the public instructs, but don’t touch Medicare. Well, after generations of second-rate politicians misrepresenting the facts of our budget to them, we shouldn’t wonder – because Key was exactly right: the voice of the people is but an echo of the country’s political leadership. Garbage in equals garbage out.

This year seems to be more of the same, with three candidates either incapable of or uninterested in focusing the country on the biggest challenges we face. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are leaders who understand the nature of the problem and who can articulate it in a clear way. Agree or disagree with them, at least they are posing the problem in no uncertain terms. That is a necessary condition for an actual debate on the merits, which in turn is necessary for an informed public opinion.

One such leader gave the State of the Union rebuttal Tuesday night. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels argued:

In our economic stagnation and indebtedness, we are only a short distance behind Greece, Spain, and other European countries now facing economic catastrophe. But ours is a fortunate land. Because the world uses our dollar for trade, we have a short grace period to deal with our dangers. But time is running out, if we are to avoid the fate of Europe, and those once-great nations of history that fell from the position of world leadership.

So 2012 is a year of true opportunity, maybe our last, to restore an America of hope and upward mobility, and greater equality. The challenges aren’t matters of ideology, or party preference; the problems are simply mathematical, and the answers are purely practical.

This is exactly the right frame for the 2012 election, and it is exactly the message that none of the candidates – on either side – seem able to carry.

The over cautious, platitudinous Romney can beat Obama, but in so doing I doubt he will frame the issues in a way that gives him a mandate to fix the bigger problems. And the unpredictable Gingrich might eke out a win, but it is but a matter of time before he alienates half-plus-one of the country, including many conservatives, by his bombast.

Somebody else – somebody with the ability to make the case for reform in a sober and courageous manner – should jump into this race. And not just to keep Obama from a second term. If 2012 is a decisive election – then we need a candidate with the courage and rectitude to make the choice clear to the voters, so that once in office he has the mandate to fix this mess.

Daniels could be that candidate. While he could not win an outright majority of delegates because of the passing of too many filing deadlines, he could do what Bobby Kennedy attempted in 1968: get in late, do well in the latter contests, win some big states, and make the case that, early primaries aside, he is the true choice of the party, the one who could unify everybody around a common cause. If nobody has won a majority of delegates by June, that could very well be enough for a dark horse victory for Daniels.

Let’s hope he’s open to the idea.

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