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C. Fraser Smith: Voters hear answers to wrong questions

Another festival of democracy having come and gone, it is time — past time in the world of instant media — to think about what needs attention in our country.

You might think we’d been over everything during a presidential campaign. You would be wrong. Many important issues were avoided almost entirely — because they were thought to be toxic by the candidates and their managers.

Those who say, for example, that President Barack Obama has no mandate to govern boldly are partly correct. Other than Obamacare and raising taxes on the rich, what can he point to as proof of support from the voters?

Too little.

More promises needed

I am personally a fan of promises. We needed more of them. They may not be kept, but they tell us where a candidate wants to take us. We got too few from our president. He adopted a kind of rope-a-dope strategy, hoping to avoid anything that would drive away supporters or foreclose the prospect of winning new ones. The strategy worked politically.

And, of course, that was Job One. You can’t affect policymaking if you’ve moved back to Chicago.

No wonder, then, the despair of any voter still hopeful about change. Take, for example, Cindy Wolf, of Charles Village, who cast her ballot at Margaret Brent Elementary School. She wanted to send messages to political leaders. She found both candidates “scary” because neither forcefully addressed the needs of the American people.

She sounded a little like a refugee from Occupy — which unfortunately chose to keep its forces out of the election fray.

Speaking for herself, she said, disaffected voters “[are] looking for candidates who will be developing policies that will reverse income inequality, that will reinstate rule of law in the country for white-collar crime and who look more toward domestic growth and less toward global growth. What we have here is a dynamic that is heavily leaning in the opposite direction.”

Instead of an honest, searching exploration, too many candidates and commentators were still asking the tired, old question: Are you better off today than you were four years ago?

It’s become destructive trope in American politics, the insightful television journalist David Simon said. We needed questions like: Do you see a candidate who looks ahead, who analyzes challenges and proposes ways to meet them?

Many challenges have to be measured, not in four-year increments, but in much longer periods of time. A decade or more would be needed in many cases. And so, a better question: Do you think the candidates are offering realistic and honest approaches to things like how will Americans fare in the world job market? Or who’s talking about failing infrastructure or climate change or trade policy (as some experts say, well-trained workers won’t get jobs if trade policy puts the work in some other country)?

Of course, we must live in the present. If we see things in campaigns that frighten us, that seem to move us backward and away from a compassionate society, we must act accordingly. We have to mobilize.

Exciting turnout

And so, the turnout of Maryland was exhilarating: It was greater among black voters in the state than the historic 2008 turnout. It was the formerly oppressed reveling in the power of each person’s vote, rallying to support someone who had to play an economic hand dealt by an earlier president.

A young woman in West Baltimore, waiting to vote at Gwynns Falls Elementary, said she thought Mitt Romney was planning to end or reduce Pell Grants. “Scary,” she said.

“How’s there going to be more Barack Obamas without us building our children up?” she asked.

A good question from a voter who knows we’ll never be “better off” if we don’t keep investing in our children.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record Fridays. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.