You could call it malaise. But the combination of boredom and cynicism with which voters have greeted this year's presidential race is a far cry from the stagflation-driven despair of the late 1970s.
And although some Democrats have bemoaned a choice between Elmers—Fudd (Tsongas) and Gantry (Clinton)—weak challengers don't entirely explain voter boredom. After all, the Democrats have been rigging their rules for years to produce a candidate like Bill Clinton—slick, Southern, and semicentrist. That he has vague positions and a questionable character just makes him all the more Kennedyesque. In a different era, his Rohrschach-test approach to the vision thing could have enthused millions by allowing them to see themselves in him.
But 1992 is not 1960. There is no missile gap, and the New Deal faith that made the Kennedy-Nixon debate seem like a tribute dinner for the Tennessee Valley Authority has gone the way of Sen. Tom Harkin's presidential hopes.
In fact, the presidential race's tepid reception stems from quite the opposite sentiment: Voters sense that the nation's biggest problems, the ones they worry about most, simply aren't terribly susceptible to presidential solutions. And that sense makes the particulars of candidates and platforms a lot less interesting and a lot less important.
Take the number-one problem in the minds of voters: the sluggish economy. Although we could certainly wish for lower taxes and a sounder long-term policy, there really isn't much any president can do about the current recession. It is, after all, a worldwide phenomenon. Britain's John Major, facing a re-election battle of his own, can attest to that.
So can those economic demigods, the Japanese. Japan has been in a two-year slump, its stock market is in free fall, and its banks are burdened with loads of bad real-estate loans. The Bank of Japan's index of business confidence recently posted its first negative reading since November 1987.
What's more, the Japanese economy's long-term prospects don't look too good: Saving is growing at the slowest rate ever, and a host of large companies are saddled with convertible debt they'd hoped bondholders would swap for stock. With the stock market down and interest rates up, only a fool would make that trade, meaning that Japan's leading companies will soon be tapping their cash reserves or refinancing at high interest rates.
Presidential politics may demand economic hubris, but in the real world the recession is bigger than the puny schemes of presidential candidates. In fact, it seems to be ending in the United States without benefit of new laws. No wonder voters who rank "economy/jobs" their primary concern spread their votes across all candidates.
This is not to say that public policy doesn't matter to the economy, only that it matters in the broadest sense: Institutions matter; gimmicks don't. A stable Federal Reserve has done wonders. A liability system based on responsibility rather than redistribution would strengthen the economy's resilience. So would a five-year moratorium on changes in the tax code. No matter how attractive, they exact a terrible cost in disrupted plans, lawyer and accountant fees, and—as Jerry Brown would be quick to remind us—political sleaze.
Progress results not from campaign promises but from the evolution of social institutions, including business enterprises, over time. The president can set a tone and can enact policies that allow progress. But he can't pull the country up by its bootstraps, even if he has a cooperative Congress.
Nowhere is the importance of institutions and the inadequacy of political solutions clearer than in the other area that comes up over and over in any discussion of the state of the union: the condition of education in this country.
By "education" I do not mean the schools but the products of those schools—a citizenry uninformed about the world, a work force unable to read and write well enough to take down phone messages, a cadre of young people who simply do not know what it is to live up to exacting standards, whether for waiting tables or writing press releases.
The most telling result of countless international comparisons is that American students post among the lowest test scores while believing they've done the best. Learning, as education critic Richard Mitchell has noted, requires disillusionment; we must first realize what we don't know. And American students are suffering from an excess of illusions.
Here, as in the economic realm, competition would help. That is the promise of school-choice plans—to force the Pintos of the educational world to compete with the Civics. But, as choice opponents are quick to note, making schools compete won't necessarily make kids do their homework.
That is hardly an argument against choice, which would at least offer better education to kids who do study. It is, however, an argument that not all educational problems are amenable to public-policy solutions. Poor education is also a matter of hearts and minds, of parents who complain that teachers push their kids too fast or grade too hard; of teachers who worry more about feelings than about knowledge; of students who pressure their peers not to study and ridicule those who do.
When my husband was a freshman at Princeton, his faculty adviser gave him this advice: "Don't take math. Have a love affair." When such attitudes have infected such institutions, our educational problems are way beyond the reach of politics.
Raising our expectations of ourselves, our children, our teachers, our employees, and even our politicians is critical to overcoming both our educational and our economic difficulties—far more critical than which of a dismal choice of candidates ultimately takes the White House. No amount of economic fine tuning can give long-term jobs to high-school graduates who can't read. But there are signs, largely from the business world, that standards are in fact going up.
One of the most interesting signs, however, is completely political—the flap over the House members' propensity for writing rubber checks. Accustomed to the indulgence accorded wayward children, House members were shocked to find the public cared how they mismanaged their money. But care the people do. The issue is largely symbolic, of political privilege, yes, but also of sloppy standards. When members of Congress are expected to balance their checkbooks, perhaps we will soon see teachers demanding homework and college professors recommending math.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Politics Without Answers".