At the Alfred E. Smith dinner Thursday night—the event where political candidates are supposed to indulge in a little comedy in the midst of an intense presidential campaign, President Barack Obama opened with a joke.
In less than three weeks, "voters in states like Ohio, Virginia, and Florida will decide this incredibly important election," the president said. "Which begs the question: What are we doing here?" Obama said to the New York City crowd.
It was funny, but also a little tragic, as good comedy is, because it was so very sadly true. The nature of the presidential contest is such that wide swaths of the country become virtually irrelevant when it comes to choosing the person who will make decisions that affect the lives of all of us.
All those people in Ohio, quoted in newspapers saying how annoyed they are getting at all the campaign staffers calling and visiting? How irritating it is to have the candidates themselves constantly traipse through their town, pleading for votes and making promises to help that town or state? I would love to so bothered. For those of us who live in the capital of political irrelevance, the overwhelming Democratic District of Columbia, national campaigns are a mere spectator sport. The added insult is that presidents and members of Congress delight in criticizing the district—be it the school system, the efforts to control guns, or even whether the metro signs were changed, at great expense, to add "Ronald Reagan" before "National Airport"—but since they don't need the votes of the predictable District of Columbia, they don't bother offering up anything to the city's citizens.
The electoral college, on paper, would favor the biggest states. But since most of those states—California, Texas, New York, and Illinois—are politically predictable, they get ignored, too. It could be a good thing, to have smaller states get more attention. But since Americans are increasingly self-selecting their communities—making the states and regions even more politically polarized—there are whole categories of people whose concerns aren't getting addressed. If Alabama and Mississippi were battleground states, might we finally hear a plan for the poor—and one that isn't centered around the burden helping the poor might put in the wealthy? We may never know.