Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Primary Virtues, Campaign Vices

Timothy Sherratt


By Timothy Sherratt

Has the long primary campaign done justice to the range of perspectives and issues facing the American electorate? Will the general election be one-dimensional, or will it succeed in airing a wide range of issues?

If society is pluralistic, election campaigns should air a wide range of issues. Citizens are to be subject to the rule of law, so justice favors campaigns in which the candidates take and explain positions that will affect people’s lives.  But in practice, campaigns manifest centripetal as well as centrifugal forces, and the former usually overcome the latter.

Political scientists call the centripetal forces “framing.” Candidates seek a narrative on which to run, stories they can present to their individual advantages. In place of the wide array of issues, campaigns substitute the recovery, or Syria, or religious liberty, or immigration as a frame. The campaigns do not have it all their own way, of course. Republicans and Democrats tell competing tales in the same frame; incumbents and challengers juxtapose their different accounts of promise and performance. Meanwhile, some issues simply force their way in and set their own agendas. An economic downturn will move front and center even without encouragement.

The range and diversity of issues is also a function of candidate profiles. As the Super Tuesday results suggest, the Republicans are, despite some hesitations, closing in on a nominee who is an economic manager, committed to small government, with a socially conservative conscience.  Because he is a manager, former Governor Mitt Romney’s managerial profile easily accommodates the usefully broad range of themes aired during the primaries. But for just that reason his commitments have a “pasted-on” quality, and his sincerity has been called into question constantly.

Former Senator Rick Santorum, the conviction politician, is vulnerable to a different challenge, not on the basis of integrity but of breadth. Invigorated by the emergence of religious liberty as an important issue, Santorum has risked typecasting as the proverbial fanatic—who won’t change his mind or the subject—and he may not be able to solve this dilemma. 

The economy’s condition will choke or release other issues to color the general election campaign. If the economy slows, then Romney’s virtues as a former chief executive will compare favorably with President Barack Obama’s performance. Nothing that the President has undertaken, from stimulus to healthcare and bailouts, will then look good.

If, on the other hand, the economic recovery continues, then Romney-the-manager will appear less necessary; a don’t-rock-the-boat logic favorable to the incumbent will take hold. Unsurprisingly, the Administration would frame a recovering economy as the compelling narrative of the general election. Romney would then face a dilemma: press his managerial attacks on Obama’s performance but with less assurance of success, or try to change the subject.

Changing the subject might play well with both social and fiscal conservatives, whose support for the Republican ticket is somewhat impervious to the present state of the economy. While social conservatism has secured a place in this year’s elections, fiscal responsibility has not been featured as prominently during the primaries, despite dominating the agenda throughout 2011.

President Obama faces different constraints: He must govern even as he campaigns. The demands of governing impose limits on the narrative frame he may wish to impose on the general election—witness the challenge of situating his administration at the right distance from the Israeli government’s determination to check Iran’s nuclear program by force, or that of responding to calls for the U.S. to aid the Syrian opposition, either by helping arm them or by agreeing to NATO airstrikes.

The state of the economic recovery will cast its shadow over these foreign policy actions. The President would not want to be seen as turning his attention to new initiatives in foreign affairs while the economy falters.

Democratic norms favor campaigns that air a wide array of issues, perspectives and candidates befitting society’s pluralism. Yet, campaign strategies seek to frame elections with powerful and narrow narratives to serve the candidates’ and parties’ self-interest. Powerful issues impose their own agendas. While there may be better ways to ensure that elections respect democratic norms—proportional representation and multiple parties providing most assurance in this direction—there is reason to applaud the primaries for their collective achievement to date in Election 2012.

—Timothy Sherratt is a Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”