At a time when the country faces an uncertain future economically and internationally, the conversation in the capital and on the campaign trail has dwelled largely on the past as the two contenders for the White House and their allies spend their time and energy relitigating old fights rather than focusing on new ideas for the next four years.
Mr. Obama’s campaign on Thursday hammered Mr. Romney over business deals from the turn of the century, just days after the president summoned supporters to the East Room for the latest salvo over tax cuts enacted by his predecessor a decade ago. Mr. Romney’s Republican supporters in Congress countered by voting in the House to repeal Mr. Obama’s two-year-old health care program and by trying to force a Senate vote on President George W. Bush’s tax cuts.
“It’s just rearguing and rearguing and rearguing,” said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma and author of a book to be published next month about what he sees as the current dysfunction in American politics and governance. “In most elections, especially for president, what you get is: Here is my vision, here’s where I’m going to take the country. And there’s none of it.”
Some of that may reflect the still-early stage of a campaign in which each side, fueled by “super PAC” money, is trying to define the other by arguing that past is prologue. But it also underscores the austere backdrop of the campaign. With federal debt rising, the economy sputtering and partisan divisions polarizing the capital, there is less room or appetite for the sorts of sweeping initiatives offered by previous presidents and challengers.
Any broad agenda a candidate could advance on the campaign trail this year might be unrealistic or involve pain for various constituencies. Mr. Obama’s promises from 2008 to tackle climate change and immigration seem no more likely to succeed in a second term than they did in the first. And reining in government spending as Mr. Romney promises to do will involve potentially ox-goring choices that alienate certain voters.
That’s not to say that Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have not endorsed specific measures for the next term. Mr. Obama can point to budget proposals that outline in wrenching detail ideas for Medicare, military spending and so on, while Mr. Romney has issued position papers and embraced a controversial budget plan by Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who leads the Budget Committee. And certainly the Bush-era tax cuts and Mr. Obama’s health care program are important to the future.
But Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are not proposing a comprehensive new tax code or a replacement health care system so much as a return to an earlier state. And to the extent they do have specific new ideas, the candidates tend not to emphasize them in stump speeches and they get little attention in the television advertisements and the nonstop flood of e-mailed statements issued by rival campaign headquarters in Chicago and Boston, as demonstrated once again on Thursday by the Obama campaign’s relentless assault on Mr. Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital.
“Romney wants to make this a referendum on Obama’s last four years while Obama wants to make it a referendum on Romney’s last 14 years,” said John Feehery, a longtime Republican strategist. “There are no easy choices to make looking forward, so both campaigns are probably more comfortable relitigating the past.”
Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist who managed Senator John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, said the candidates were reflecting the electorate. “It really does feel like ‘retrenchment’ is the watchword of the cycle,” he said. “Some combination, I guess, of the national mood of resignation and fatigue, the probably incorrect poll-driven perception that voters only want to hear about the economy, where each party long ago dug its trench, and the amazing timidity of the Romney campaign.”
Often obscured by the focus on the past, the candidates’ messages for the future boil down to these: Mr. Obama vows to preserve and continue what he has been doing, arguing that his policies need more time to fully restore a troubled country. Mr. Romney essentially applies the same formula he recently did to Israel policy, about which he said “you can just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite.”
Each of the campaigns, of course, blames the other for the focus. “The discussion of the past in part is because that’s all the Romney campaign talks about and because Romney’s approach to the economy is completely derivative of what was tried in the last decade,” said David Axelrod, the Obama campaign’s senior adviser. Kevin Madden, a Romney adviser, said Mr. Obama “has actually ceded the future argument in the campaign” and is “telling you the No. 1 issue Americans need to concern yourself with is the arrangement for how Romney left his private sector business in 1999.”
The consequence of that, though, may be a victor who wakes up the morning after Election Day without much of a mandate. Mr. Bush discovered that after the 2004 election when he opened his second term with a plan to restructure Social Security by allowing younger workers to divert some of their payroll taxes to investment accounts. While he had long supported such a move, it was not the centerpiece of his campaign speeches and the idea went nowhere.
Mr. Obama, for his part, did talk about big ideas for the future in 2008 and arguably did have a mandate for some of them. Yet he found that despite his election victory, the health care plan he passed did not enjoy public support and his plans to curb greenhouse gases and liberalize immigration rules had little traction in Congress. Now he promises to keep pursuing the same goals, but they do not seem to be motivating core supporters as much as attacks on his opponent.
“Perhaps in part because neither candidate is a classic populist, both camps are conspicuously reigniting old grievances to generate enthusiasm among their bases,” said Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington advocacy organization. “Once they have voter attention this way, they seem to hope their more positive messages can then at least get a hearing from a notably wary electorate.”
In effect, then, the campaigns may be laying the groundwork for the conversation after Labor Day. “In a larger sense, the focus on the past records of the candidates is prologue to the fundamental debate about the future we inevitably will be having in the fall,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster working with Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting Mr. Obama.
Which comes back around to that Obama slogan, “Forward.” That’s “Forward.” with a period. The campaign says that’s for emphasis. But it is not an exclamation point. Perhaps after such high-flying talk in 2008, this is a president trying to temper expectations for the future.