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A hard choice between bad, old options

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For this voter, it’s been a discouraging campaign.

The trouble we’re in is big, but the candidates both seem small to me, though in different ways.

Do you recognize these words? "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate. ... The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew ... and then we shall save our country."

That was Abraham Lincoln in an address to Congress in 1862.

A century and a half later the occasion is again "piled high with difficulty," but no one has been talking to us in that spirit.

From where I sit, Gov. Mitt Romney has been blowing smoke. He presents himself as confident and determined, but his ideas aren’t clear or concrete. He acts energized, but he has not energized us with powerful ideas or a compelling vision. On the big issues — the economy, energy and climate policy, growing inequality, terrorism — he gives us empty phrases that don’t add up in terms of budgets or common sense. Plus he says he’ll undo the progress we’ve made on health care for those who need it most.

We had a lot of fantasy economics under President George W. Bush, and we don’t need more of that. We need to get out of the trouble Bush II’s crazy ideas got us into.

President Barack Obama has been consistent, belabored and inoffensive — but to my ear he hasn’t given us a real plan to close the deficit and get jobs and investment flowing again, or what he’ll do about global warming and the energy policies that are strangling us. He just says he’ll do more of what he tried to do during his first four years. Which Romney says is exactly the problem.

And neither of them can explain how they will get anything serious moving if we re-elect a polarized Congress.

On foreign policy the two candidates have not quarreled much — or said much. Romney says he won’t cut the defense budget, as he has said he won’t cut Medicare or Social Security, but will somehow mysteriously close the deficit. Both promise to be "tough" with China. But they also recognize, to varying degrees, that they must treat China as an uneasy but important partner, not just a threatening rival.

There were three presidential debates. Obama napped through the first, and neither candidate said anything impressive in the second or third. At the town hall debate at Hofstra University, most of the audience sat stony-faced and uninvolved. At a moment of great national peril, neither candidate succeeded in engaging the audience positively or eliciting from them any strong reaction of any kind whatsoever.

My hunch is that great swaths of the American public feel unconnected to either candidate and have little hope that either will pull us together and move us forward out of the dismal economic doldrums in which we find ourselves. It may be hard to summon the enthusiasm to get out and vote — and the impact of Sandy just makes us feel the need for good leadership all the more.

Now I understand this is a campaign, and that candidates have to couch their ideas in terms and values that appeal to voters. But great leaders take that requirement as an opportunity, not a constraint. They rise above the tired checklists of code-words and special interest obsessions to paint a broader vision of what we need to do and why. A great leader shares his sense of the large measures that will be necessary and lays out in broad terms what he or she will ask of us.

The Western world is stumbling economically, weapons of mass destruction are spreading, and we are frying the planet. I’m ready to follow someone who will "think anew and act anew."

I will vote Tuesday. Voting is a sacred trust in a democracy. But the leader I am looking for will not be on the ballot.


Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State, is a member of the State Budget Crisis Task Force. He wrote this for Newsday.



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