With all the excitement, it's easy to get lost in the fog of which tax cut was for the middle class and which animal is OK to put lipstick on and fail to see what's been missing from the picture.
Sorry for looking ahead before we've even finished with this election, but when we wake up on Nov. 5, there will be euphoria -- for the winners -- but there will also be a hangover from a set of election issues that have again been allowed to fester. So let's not forget about them, starting with the biggest issue of all -- 950 million of them, in fact...
Between Obama (more than $600 million raised) and McCain (more than $350 million raised), this has become nearly a $1 billion race -- the most expensive in American history. And donors tend to want a return on their investment. If money is free speech, as courts have ruled, then it's also true that rich people speak louder than the rest of us. Sure, Obama's unprecedented number of donors brings more people into the mix, but he, too, has plenty of big-dollar donors.
Money in politics is a major problem -- a problem even the maverick McCain once railed against. If you want less regulation in your industry -- say, writing mortgages or creating fancy new investment instruments -- hire lobbyists to kill it. And it works, leaving us with unsolved problems piling up.
We've replaced our election system with an election industry, but is it resulting in more clarity or more confusion? And the spectacle of nearly $1 billion raised suggests the race for the White House has become more auction than election.
Over the past two elections, we've also seen two of the shakiest votes in our history. Last time, voters in Ohio waited all night only to be turned away, while extra voting machines were locked away in warehouses. And of course we all remember how the state of Florida seemed to find numerous ways to botch its election in 2000. Have we made progress? We'll know on Wednesday, but early evidence suggests that we continue to have a barely functioning democracy in many parts of the country. In North Carolina, early voters are struggling with a confusing ballot, and voters in Florida -- again -- found massive problems during a recount in August's primary. Voting machine technology is all over the map, from state to state. And depending on who your secretary of state is, recount rules are arbitrary as well. Now the specter of voter fraud is being raised, and considering the state of our election system, it's hard to imagine it won't happen.
Our voting system, in places, resembles a Third World country's -- like we need a United Nations team to observe. (In fact, thousands of lawyers from both parties will be out observing polling places.) That's unacceptable. We neglect the machinery of democracy at our own peril.
Every four years, we hear it's going to be different this time. In 2004, the media spent a year bouncing between swift boats, $400 haircuts and -- of course -- polls, polls and more polls. No way they'd do that again. And of course, here we are, four years later, and we're talking about who's a socialist, who spent too much at Saks Fifth Avenue and -- again -- polls, polls and more polls. The horserace is just too irresistible. And by the time they're done having pundits and partisans bicker over the latest poll, there's little time left for, you know, issues.
The repetition has been mind-numbing, with many issues left for dead, casualties of media bias -- bias toward the titillating and irrelevant. (Campaign season is really just too long -- in England, election season is measured in weeks, not years.)
Reforming the media is tough, but it starts with our own news consumption habits. We can just hope that next time it will be different or, for starters, we need to reward the good stuff -- Frontline's special on the candidates, The Choice, was excellent, for example -- and tune out the garbage.
But the hardest trend to detect may be the most worrisome. It's subtle, but that's exactly the idea. In recent elections, we've slipped closer and closer to getting what they used to call the cult of personality in places like Eastern Europe and South America. The more carefully orchestrated the media campaign, the more the man becomes a commodity -- a brand. In fact, some have observed that Obama has spent more money on his brand than Diet Coke has over the past year. He even has a cool logo.
I happen to like Obama, but I worry that the Democrats have simply adapted Rove's rules and are giving us a meticulously managed, cardboard cutout of a candidate. I don't believe that's the case with Obama, but we've been bitten by this one before. Everything we were told to believe about George W. Bush turned out to be fake -- and we'll be paying for our gullibility for a long time.
The surprising reaction to the film W. has been that rather than caricaturing America's least popular person, it served to remind everyone that, in the end -- after all the image-making and cult of personality -- George W. Bush is just a man.
We'll do better to know that going into a presidency rather than having to learn it after eight long years.