Parenting Politicians Is Hard Work

One of the strangest aspects of Election 2012 is that voters are demanding change but didn’t change politicians. They left Republicans in charge of the House, elected an even more Democratic Senate and re-elected President Obama. They’re unhappy with the status quo in the country but left the political status quo in place.

That doesn’t make much sense if you think of campaigns as a choice between competing political issues and ideologies. But campaigns are rarely about such things, and in 2012 a plurality of voters thought both the Obama and Romney campaigns were primarily negative. In fact, just 35 percent thought the president’s campaign was generally positive, and only 31 percent thought that of the challenger’s effort. The numbers among unaffiliated voters were even lower.

Like parents dealing with misbehaving children, voters had to figure out how to deal with the situation before them.

As a parent, you sometimes have to step in and prevent your children from making big mistakes. Other times, you just have to throw all the kids in the room together and tell them to work it out. There’s no easy way to know which approach is best for a particular situation. It’s something you have to work out through trial and error.

That trial and error approach is the way voters are dealing with their politicians, as well. In 2006, 2008 and 2010, voters threw out whoever was in charge and hoped that the new team would produce better results. It didn’t work. So, in 2012, voters basically threw the same kids back in the room and told them to clean up the mess they’ve created.

On the surface, this might appear to be a recipe for continued gridlock. It’s frightening to imagine a game of political chicken with a fiscal cliff just around the corner and a host of other issues that need serious attention now.

But throwing the same politicians back in the room also may reflect a bit of common sense wisdom.

Consider the long-term deficit challenges. Our government is $16 trillion in debt, a figure that rises to over $100 trillion if you include all the unfunded liabilities to cover the cost of promises politicians have made. This problem was not created by the Obama administration spending policies or the Bush tax cuts. Both parties have worked together for decades to create an unsustainable level of spending.

In fact, you can trace the roots of our current fiscal crisis back to the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. Both those men offered benefits to voters at the time and pushed the cost off to some future generation. That generation is us.

We don’t want to do that to our children and grandchildren. Two out of three voters believe that the best thing the government can do to help the economy is to cut spending. Yet, heading into Election Day, most voters didn’t expect that to happen regardless of whether the president was re-elected or Mitt Romney emerged victorious.

By giving both parties some responsibility for what happens next, voters may be hoping that the nation’s political leaders will come up with some real solutions rather than continued stalemate. The good news, though, is that the grown-ups will be watching. If the current political arrangement doesn’t produce results, voters will try something different in 2014.

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