Half a Billion Dollars and All We Got Is This Lousy Election?

Half a billion dollars and all we got is this lousy election? That's about how much has been spent in the presidential race so far, and by the time it's all said and done, the Center for Responsive Politics estimates the price tag will reach about $2.5 billion. That's a lot of money -- and much of it will have been spent on what is sometimes called "messaging." With a $2.5 billion bankroll, you'd think pretty much every important issue would get its place in the sun. Well, as it turns out, you don't always get what you pay for.

Let's take a quick refresher tour of some of this campaign's more pointless diversions: We've looked at Bain and who was -- and wasn't -- running it, Solyndra, assorted gaffes, Mitt Romney's tax returns, some fake gaffes ("you didn't build it," etc.), more about those tax returns, and counter-accusations about tax returns. And then we took a break for the Olympics.

But even before the London games have ended, the political press corps has already turned its attention to its favorite sport: the VP speculation marathon. Will it be T-Paw? Will it be Portman? Will Romney risk taking a risk? Can the GOP afford to put two white men on the ticket? How will his pick affect the electoral college? How about the popular vote? What does Intrade say?

And then the running mate will be revealed (by text? by tweet? by skywriting?), but that will not be the end of manufactured drama. We'll have the conventions, and more parlor games: Who was snubbed by being denied a prime-time speaking slot? What is the point each party is trying to make with the speakers that do get prime-time?

And once the conventions end, we will enter the season of polls, polls, polls -- interrupted only by the debates, which should become another opportunity for the media to zero in on which candidate made the biggest gaffe and which candidate delivered the zingiest zinger. Then it will be more polls and electoral college math -- complete with full-color touch-screen maps!

Lost in that swirl will be any discussion of what matters to millions of struggling Americans: jobs and the ongoing housing crisis, both symptoms of a national ailment that needs immediate attention. I'm not saying things like tax returns and vice presidential selections don't matter. They are clearly important reflections of a candidate's character and profile, and we will -- and should -- talk about them. But it's a matter of proportion. What is the opportunity cost of the media's obsession with polls, gaffes and speculation?

"Whether at home or abroad," writes HuffPost's Michael Calderone, "presidential candidates' so-called gaffes -- and the media's preoccupation with each inartfully phrased or impolitic remark -- have defined the 2012 election." As Calderone notes, it was nearly 30 years ago that Michael Kinsley wrote about how the gaffe has become "the principal dynamic mechanism of American politics, as interpreted by journalists." It's only gotten worse in the intervening years. "I think the whole campaign has been about gaffes and not about -- I hate to sound pompous -- the issues," Kinsley says.

Republican consultant Steve Schmidt says the landscape has changed even between 2000 and 2008, when he managed John McCain's campaign. "It was absolutely impossible to deliver a message to the American people when... [you were] surrounded by a bunch of very young reporters on the campaign plane who... were interested in asking a question to elicit the most embarrassing answer."

Wanting to put a candidate on the spot isn't the problem. That's what campaign reporters should be doing. But instead of asking the candidates about some out-of-context statement or some inartfully-worded "gaffe," how about really embarrassing them by confronting them with the true nature of how devastating this economy is for millions of Americans and how much of that suffering has been because of their -- and their parties' -- inaction and lack of urgency?

Lost among the non-stop coverage of the candidates' "gaffes" was a powerful piece by Jonathan Chait about how shocking it is that our leaders and elites accept such widespread misery:

In the years since the collapse of 2008, the existence of mass unemployment has stopped being something the economic powers that be even pretend to regard as a crisis. To those directly impacted, the economic crisis is an emergency, a life-altering disaster the damage from which will endure for years. But most of those in a position to address it simply have not seen it in such terms. History will record that the economic elite has viewed the economic crisis from a perspective of detached complacency...

For millions and millions of Americans, the economic crisis is the worst event of their lives. They have lost jobs, homes, health insurance, opportunities for their children, seen their skills deteriorate, and lost their sense of self-worth. But from the perspective of those in a position to alleviate their suffering, the crisis is merely a sad and distant tragedy.

But for millions of Americans, it's a horrible day-to-day reality. Just look at what's going on with housing. Eleven million homeowners are underwater -- about one out of every five homes. But the impact extends far beyond the 11 million and their families. As Paul Krugman writes, "many economists believe that the overhang of excess household debt, a legacy of the bubble years, is the biggest factor holding back economic recovery."

It was nearly a year ago that John Cassidy asked, "where are the serious proposals to revive the housing market?" Since it's an election year and 20 percent of homes are underwater, you might think that, in the ten months since Cassidy wrote that, someone might have put forth a bold plan. But you'd be wrong. "It's as if both parties have agreed to drop the issue," he wrote at the time. And not much has changed since.

Including the fact that Edward DeMarco is still the head of the Federal Housing and Finance Agency (FHFA). HuffPost's Peter S. Goodman described him as "the single largest obstacle to meaningful economic recovery." The agency DeMarco runs -- he's a Bush-era civil servant holdover -- is in charge of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And in that capacity, he has unilaterally refused to follow the Obama administration's plan to provide debt relief to underwater homeowners.

The White House did try to get rid of DeMarco last year by appointing Joseph Smith, the North Carolina banking commissioner, as his replacement, but the Republican Senate refused to confirm him. And the White House has refused to use all the means at its disposal to oust the man who is continuing to do so much damage to tens of thousands of America's homeowners.

"I put the blame on Obama, for not clearing out the embeds years ago -- apparently not even wanting to," writes Americablog's Gaius Publius. "And now that he has finally decided to offer a dollop of non-banker bailout (albeit timed for election season), his four-year indulgence of Ed DeMarco has bit him hard." Hopefully, DeMarco's exit can be arranged during the next Congressional recess. But even if that happens, serious mortgage debt relief won't even begin to have an effect for another year or two.

One thing both parties can do to make a difference is extend the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act, which expires at the end of the year. It would continue to ensure that homeowners receiving debt relief don't get pushed further underwater by taxes. Not extending the Act would be devastating: It would represent "a final indignity for homeowners who have been abused by the fraudulent mortgage practices of leading banks for years," writes David Dayen. "Just when they think they get relief from their troubles, they get hit with a massive tax bill they cannot pay."

It's the least Congress could do, since, as Dean Baker writes, "Congress could have allowed bankruptcy judges to rewrite mortgages that were written during the housing bubble frenzy, but it backed away from this opportunity." Just as it backed away from changing foreclosure rules to let families continue living in their homes as renters. "Ever since the housing bubble collapsed, the Federal government has refused to take major initiatives to help underwater homeowners," says Baker. "As a result, we are likely to see close to one million foreclosures both this year and next."

Felix Salmon hopes that the backlog of principal reductions could be completed by 2015, but he doesn't think it will be. "This housing crisis, I think, is going to last a decade," he writes. "Or more."

As for the Fed, don't expect it to help. In fact, it has already signaled it won't, even though its own forecasts say that unemployment -- supposedly part of its "dual mandate" -- is going to remain high for some time. "The truly shocking thing isn't the news," writes Matt Yglesias, "but the proposed response -- to do nothing different."

So, there is no bold plan for jobs and there is no bold plan for housing. And if we don't have this debate now, with around 90 days left in this election, it'll be a signal that we really are just going to accept this permanent state of crisis as the new American normal.

"Don't expect things to improve until the people with the power to change direction decide they want to do something," writes Yglesias. But they will only make that decision if we force them to. We can start by demanding a more meaningful election.

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