A quick trip to Washington, D.C., this past week provided me a snapshot of our nation's capital in the throes of contemplating national elections that might result in what passes in the United States for a drastic change in administration.
For what it's worth, most denizens of Washington think Barack Obama is going to defeat Mitt Romney in November. No doubt one reason is that they cannot easily imagine the major tilt of their apple cart that would occur if Mr. Romney were to win the presidency. The government people and their hangers-on -- lobbyists, lawyers, financiers, consultants, even doctors and yoga-studio operators -- are always like that in presidential election years.
The most dramatic change that I experienced while in Washington was in 1980 as Ronald Reagan was succeeding Jimmy Carter. As a columnist in Pittsburgh I apparently am considered a dangerous liberal, but at that time, having just completed a two-year assignment at the American embassy in Communist Bulgaria and being fed up with the sometimes appalling naivete of Mr. Carter and his administration in dealing with the Soviet Union and its little friends -- something like Bambi meets Godzilla -- I wasn't especially bothered by the prospect of a Reagan presidency.
That September, the Carter people were feeling confident. Before long, they would consider the advent of the Reagan crowd in Washington to be the equivalent of the Alaric and Visigoths entering Rome in 410 A.D.
Part of my own lack of my normal enthusiasm for change when it comes to this year's elections is attributable to the fact that some of Washington's least inspiring non-leaders are likely to still be around after Nov. 7 no matter what happens with the presidency. These include such great American figures as Speaker of the House John Boehner, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. What has happened to us? How did we end up with these people? How do we get rid of them?
My wife gets cross with me when I become nostalgic for the French revolution, the attack on the Bastille, the list of people to be guillotined to complete the change of regimes.
One problem with U.S. elections is that the Electoral College process is profoundly undemocratic. Why the United States cannot have a one-person, one-vote system in 2012 is beyond me. I know the people who would have to change it have a stake in the status quo, putting their place at the trough in question, but that just isn't good enough.
Another problem is that candidates are free to concentrate on the "swing states" -- Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin. They ignore voters in states where the polls -- yet another undemocratic institution that has installed itself like a bad virus in our electoral system -- say the electorate already has made up its mind.
Now, if that meant that we in Pennsylvania, having revealed a preference for Mr. Obama, would henceforth be free of the disgusting ads -- a true insult to the intelligence of the voter -- that are fueled by the millions of dollars that America's rich, companies and unions pour into the presidential campaigns, I guess I would be glad. But we're seeing them anyway.
Ad makers are sneaking them into telecasts of very important events, such as Steelers' games, and, even if we here are relatively free of smarmy clips of presidential candidates -- ("He is always nice to his children and to some small animals") -- unless we are really quick with the clicker we are still involuntarily getting them from state and local candidates.
It was also perfectly clear to me in Washington that the presidential, congressional and other candidates are almost entirely disinterested in America's international relations as a campaign issue. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are scheduled to debate foreign policy Oct. 22 and both international and domestic issues on Oct. 16. But at this point, I see no indication that either of them is inclined to use an understanding of foreign affairs as a means of attracting voters.
On the one hand, that bothers me a lot. So many of our international relationships impact on the primary concern of the American public, the state of the economy, that leaving them out of the electoral discourse is virtually criminal. Asian, European and Middle Eastern countries hold trillions of dollars of our national debt. There also is the need for tax reform: Just who has how much money in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland that should be in the United States?
A large part of America's economic crisis is due to the fact that we have fought two long wars since 2001, in Iraq and Afghanistan, with borrowed money. Thus, the two candidates' intentions with respect to starting another war in Iran or prolonging the one in Afghanistan should without question be discussed thoroughly as part of the presidential campaign.
Washingtonians seem to be buzzing along happily instead on such profound topics as whether the Washington Nationals can proceed to a pennant without pitcher Stephen Strasburg or whether the Redskins' new quarterback, Robert L. Griffin III, will make all the difference.
For them, politics is a business, like a casino or a gas well. They make money no matter what happens Nov. 6. For the rest of us, there is a lot at stake. We'll get along no matter who wins, but some policies will make a big difference in our lives -- health care, education and war vs. peace as examples.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1976).