With just two weeks until election day, the most striking thing about the 2014 midterm may be how petty and substance-free it is. No major policy issue has defined this election; no major legislation is immediately at stake. It is possible to find candidates talking about a variety of policy issues—Obamacare, the minimum wage, immigration, the Export-Import bank, and more—but the implications are described almost entirely in political terms. For the most part, the focus for both parties is not on what they would do, but what they wouldn't, not who they are, but who they aren't. It's an election about nothing, except, perhaps, who one hates the most.
The big problem for Democrats is that President Obama is unpopular, and voters dislike his handling of major policy areas. An ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier this month found his job approval at just 39 percent, with 57 percent saying they disapprove. On average, the public approves of Obama's handling of foreign policy and the economy even less than they approve of the job he's doing overall.
Indeed, Obama is so toxic that when he declared earlier this month that his "policies are on the ballot—every single one of them," it was widely considered a gaffe, an admission expected to hurt his party. That Republicans instantly rushed to highlight Obama's line was to be expected; that few if any Democrats attempted to defend the president was telling: Democrats in close races this year want nothing so much as to avoid any association with the president and his policies.
The most absurd example of a Democrat seeking distance from the president came when Alison Grimes, a Democratic Senate candidate running a tight race against the GOP's Senate Minority Leader in Kentucky, refused to even say whether she voted for the president in 2008 and 2012. Sen. Mark Udall's awkward attempts to qualify his independence from the president have only been slightly less ridiculous.
But there are other, less viral-video friendly indications as well, like the president's relative absence from the campaign trail, and the fact that only 36 percent of Democrats running this cycle have indicated clear support for Obamacare, the president's highest-profile policy achievement.
The president's sagging popularity means that Democrats can't easily campaign on his policies or his proposals. And it has given Republicans a blunt object with which to attack opponents. At this point, dissatisfaction with the president appears to be strong enough that this has given Republicans an edge.
Yet Republicans have a problem of their own. Despite their attacks Obama and his policies, they have almost nothing specific to say about what they would do instead—and much of what they are saying is either incoherent or opportunistic.
For years, the party has failed to rally around an alternative to Obamacare, even while repeating the mantra "repeal and replace." This election, the first following Obamacare's major coverage expansion, many Republican candidates have tip-toed carefully around the possible consequences of repealing Obamacare, including its Medicaid expansion, suggesting a continuing unwillingness to grapple with the reality of repeal.
Meanwhile, as concerns about Ebola have gripped the media and the public, Republicans have called for a hodgepodge of dubious policy responses, from imposing a travel ban to installing an Ebola czar to oversee the response. These ad hoc calls for more federal action are mostly symbolic efforts meant to show resolve in ways that conveniently magnify perceptions of the president's weakness, and they are predicated on the troublesome, unconservative assumption that the president and national politics should be central in the response to any problem.
Broader efforts to define the GOP's policy agenda are similarly underwhelming. The Republican National Committee's (RNC) 11-point "Principles for American Renewal" was intended as a launching pad for a GOP governing vision, and a set of ideas that everyone in the party could agree on. "People know what we're against," RNC Chair Reince Preibus said earlier this month, "I want to talk about the things we're for."
Mostly, though, what the 11 points illustrate is how vague the party's commitment is to anything in particular. It's almost entirely rhetorical fluff: On the economy, the party apparently supports "growing America's economy so that working Americans see better wages and more opportunity." On immigration, it favors "an immigration system that secures our borders, upholds the law and boosts our economy." There are items deal with "values" and "the Constitution," both of which amount to little more than assertions that values and the Constitution are, in fact, Good Things. Indeed, the sense one gets this election is that the Republican party has decided only that it is for Good Things, and that if Obama is for something, that makes it a Bad Thing, and this distinction is all that really matters.
The result is an election in which Democrats cannot run on what they have done, and Republicans cannot run on what they will do. So petty squabbles and Twitter-friendly soundbites dominate the news as each side attempts to drive turnout by campaigning the notion that the other party is worse—for women or for struggling workers, for the economy or for America's place in the world. It's not an election about which side to vote for. It's an election about which side to vote against.
The bipartisan emptiness of this midterm election, and the intense focus by both parties on turning out core voters rather than on broadening party appeal, suggests the deep exhaustion of both parties and their respective agendas. (One reason why Ebola has received so much attention is that it helps fill the void.) At this point, both Democrats and Republicans are running on policy fumes.
Members of the public see less and less to like from almost any politician, even the ones they voted for themselves. Obama's marks are low, but even still, they're stratospheric compared to Congress. In August, fewer than 20 percent said most members of Congress should be reelected. That same month, for the first time ever, a Washington Post poll found that a majority disapproved of their own representative. Recent polls have hinted that turnout could be unusually low, even for a midterm.
In other words, the public is exhausted too. There's no enthusiasm for any of the available options, no sense that either side has a vision worth pursuing or ideas worth trying. It's an election that's not about anything except which side is the worst—and tellingly, what voters really seem to want is to not have to decide.