What issues do candidates and parties not talk about? It’s worth asking, because sometimes these questions turn out to be important.
I don’t remember any candidate talking about Islamic terrorism in the 1998 midterm elections or the risk of investing in mortgage-backed securities in 2006. Going back in time, I don’t remember lots of talk about how to win or defeat. escalate the Vietnam War in 1966 or deal with rising inflation in 1970.
So what aren’t politicians talking about this year? Start with foreign policy. Polls show widespread and unusually bipartisan support for US aid to Ukraine against Russian aggression. Activists have shown little appetite for challenging the Biden administration’s approach.
There was even a swift backlash against those suggesting a change. House Minority Leader (and likely next Speaker) Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has received backlash for saying Ukraine shouldn’t have a “blank check.” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has come under fire for posting and then retracting a letter signed by 30 House Democrats urging President Joe Biden to negotiate with Russia over Ukraine .
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In both cases, supporters were quick to present these moves as evidence of pro-Russian sympathies on the part of the other party, just as the Democrats propagated the Russian collusion hoax to delegitimize the former president. Donald Trump. But very few Republican or Democrat MPs side with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The most important story is that candidates aren’t asking tough questions about Ukraine and voters aren’t asking them. Or about China’s threats against Taiwan.
One reason may be that in hyperpartisan times neither party has a clear position on the use of US military power. For half a century, from 1917 to 1967, the Democrats were the most adventurous party when it came to military intervention. From 1967, when the Democrats soured on their own Vietnam policy, the Republicans were the more adventurous party until Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
Today, as in 1966 and 1998, voters and candidates leave menacing foreign policy challenges to office holders and credentialed experts, professional diplomats and military leaders.
Another thing that isn’t talked about in the campaign is what political scientists used to say when it comes to politics: economic redistribution. New Deal Democrats advocated, and Republicans resisted, progressive taxes and welfare programs to take from the rich and give to the poor.
We don’t hear much about it anymore because neither side is advocating major changes to the status quo. As one Washington Post writer admits, the US tax code “is the most progressive in the developed world”. Indeed, other advanced countries rely more on value-added taxes, while the United States relies more on a tax code with high rates on high earners and little or no tax on bottom half of income. Small changes in the top rate from time to time haven’t changed that.
Meanwhile, Democrats, increasingly reliant on affluent college-educated voters, pushed to make the tax burden less progressive. Their failed attempts to restore full state and local tax deductibility would benefit the wealthy in high-tax New York, New Jersey and California. The dubious Biden plan to write off college loan debt clearly favors high earners.
Government benefits are also decidedly progressive. In their book “The Myth of Inequality,” former Republican Senator Phil Gramm (Texas), Auburn University economist Robert Ekelund, and former government statistician John Early put together data to argue that the bottom 60% of US residents economically have roughly equal incomes once accounts for government transfer payments.
Even before COVID-19, $1.9 trillion in government transfers (Social Security, disability, working income tax credit, child tax credits, food stamps) carried the real income of the 60% the poorest at roughly the same level, well above poverty.
During the election campaign, you hear echoes of the policy of economic redistribution. Some Democrats accuse Republicans of cutting Social Security, even as payments are set to rise 8.7% next year due to an inflation formula created long ago. Republicans, with their ever-shrinking voter base, aren’t talking much about cutting taxes or benefits. The tax cuts would go to the wealthy who don’t vote for them like they did 30 years ago. Benefit cuts are now more likely to hit their current constituency.
I have long argued that politics more often divides the country on cultural issues than on economic ones, and current cultural issues found some mention in this year’s campaign. Democrats pound abortion, though its importance wanes as voters realize the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization did not ban abortion everywhere and Republicans respond by emphasizing Democratic support for the abortion up to the moment of birth.
What voters are really looking for, in a wealthy country currently at peace, is to keep things under control. Republican candidates are definitely talking about runaway inflation, violent crime, and illegal immigration, all presumably linked to Biden’s policies. Voters remember times recently when these things were under control. They want those times to come back.
That’s why Republicans are heading for a good year. But we could also be heading for a time in years to come when issues not mentioned in this year’s campaigns, China in particular, could suddenly come to the attention of both parties — and the nation.
Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.