A dispiriting start to the 2016 race for White House

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida announces Monday that he is seeking the Republican presidential nomination.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida announces Monday that he is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. The Associated Press

We know that the 2016 presidential race will be long and costly, overanalyzed and ugly. The crucial question is how much the candidates will actually tell voters about where they would lead America in the post-Obama era.

We face some momentous challenges at home and abroad. The growing income gap is making the American dream a lie for far too many families. The nature of terror groups is evolving just as Iran’s nuclear program and Russia’s nationalism threaten world stability.

The campaign launches so far – including Hillary Clinton’s treacly online video on Sunday – have been highly packaged and disappointingly vacuous. On Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida jumped into the GOP field, joining Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

It’s instructive – and disheartening – to contrast the announcements with then-Sen. Barack Obama’s speech in February 2007 on the steps of the old state Capitol in Springfield, Ill. He spoke eloquently about building a more united and more hopeful country, invoking one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

A presidential race may start out as a free-for-all, but it shouldn’t be this dispiriting. Even worse, there are some troubling storylines for our democracy.

The evisceration of campaign finance laws by the U.S. Supreme Court means that there will be an avalanche of “dark” money helping to bankroll the candidates. Our elections are based on one person, one vote, but the super rich and super PACs are seeking more influence than ever.

The exploding use of social media is another way for candidates to script their messages and to avoid talking face to face with voters. If campaigns measure success by retweets, that’s a thin substitute for actual outreach.

Candidate debates, which should be an important way to separate the contenders from the pretenders, are getting a late start. In the 2008 race, the first debates were in April and May 2007. This time, the first ones aren’t scheduled until August and September.

Still, it would be too cynical to write off the campaign this early, 20 months from Election Day. There remains hope if voters aren’t satisfied with just tapping their smartphones – if they get deeply engaged and force the candidates to specifically say how they would move our nation forward.

We deserve a campaign that focuses on the big issues and that is worthy of the American people. For all of Obama’s accomplishments, he has not changed politics in Washington. The nation is as polarized as ever.

We need a president who can call this country to common purpose again. It’s going to take a lot more than tweets and YouTube ads for voters to decide who that candidate is.