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November 13, 2015

Election Out of Focus

By John Carr

A year out from the presidential election, something is disappearing and something is missing in the campaign. Among Republicans, the summer of Trump has become the fall of the outsiders with Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson leading the way. Senator Ted Cruz who attacks the Senate and Senator Marco Rubio who won’t show up in the Senate are positioning themselves as outsiders and a new generation if the frontrunners falter. Trump has doubled down on blaming immigrants and “stupid politicians” and “low energy” leaders for what he calls Crippled America. Dr. Carson offers not energy, but biography and now blames reporters for trying to undermine his appeal with questions about his youth, West Point and pyramids.

On the Democratic side, Joseph Biden “ran out of time” and Senator Bernie Sanders may be running out of room as Hillary Clinton moves to the left. She seems to be running for who she could be, the first female president, more than for what she has done. Senator Sanders does not run on what he has achieved, but on his lonely witness on key issues, giving away the email issue and questions of judgment and truthfulness that it symbolizes.

What are disappearing in this campaign are governors, leaders who have passed budgets, chosen judges and run a state. Gov. Rick Perry and Gov. Scott Walker are already out despite achievements that made conservatives love them and liberals hate them. Governors Chris Christie and Bobbie Jindal and former Governor Mike Huckabee can’t even get on the main debate stage. The records of Governors Jeb Bush and John Kasich as conservative and creative reformers seem irrelevant and may be counterproductive. Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley with a liberal record on the death penalty, gun control, the Dream Act and same-sex marriage barely registers among Democrats. In a nation that elected Governors Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, executive experience is more a liability than a qualification, so the governors are fading. 

What is missing from this campaign is serious discussion of work, workers and people without work. The nation needs a real focus on overcoming pervasive poverty, and work is the neglected center of that discussion. Mitt Romney said that if he were elected, unemployment would come down to 6 percent. Official unemployment has now fallen to 5 percent, and President Obama deserves credit for slow but steady job growth. But labor force participation is at a 38 year low, with some retired or in school, but many have given up looking for work. Millions more are working part-time though they need and want full-time work. This is an economy that leaves millions out and many behind. In the Catholic tradition, work is not just a way to make a living; it is an expression of our dignity, a contribution to the common good. Pope Francis has said, “We were created with a vocation to work” and that “work is fundamental to the dignity of the person.” 

Robert Putnam in Our Kids draws a statistical and human picture of communities, families and children without the income, dignity and supports that come with decent employment at decent wages. A new study reports that life expectancy continues to lag for people of color. For the first time, however, death rates are rising for middle-aged white Americans who lack education and other assets. Addiction, suicide, other health problems and hopelessness are destroying the lives of people who have lost their place in our economy and communities.

Where is the focus on poverty, work and workers in the campaign? At a time of identity politics in progressive circles, could Democrats focus on the crucial identity of people as workers and what happens when that is lost? The Republican Party sometimes talks about life and family. Could its candidates focus on how the lack of work destroys both?

In this coming election year, we should echo the prayer and plea of Pope Francis “for more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society...the lives of the poor!… It is vital that government to ensure that all citizens have dignified work.” It also wouldn’t hurt to listen to governors who have actually had to lead and choose, not just to vote and talk.