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Opinion: Elections should focus on issues, not politics as usual

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Before proceeding with this column, I want you to think about what you've read, seen or heard from the candidates running for state office during this campaign season.

How often have you heard detailed proposals to deal with the major issues facing our state? Such issues include COVID-19 and steps to reduce infection, addressing complications of reopening schools or dealing with a budget crisis of historic proportions. Other issues involve bridging the partisan divide to deal with rising homicide rates in major cities, the continuing problem of inadequate funding for our highways and expanding Medicaid health care coverage.

Instead, we've been bombarded with ideological simplicities and near-mindless "feel-good" TV advertisements.

Then, there are the attack ads that level vague, and sometimes misleading, charges against opponents. Some of these attack ads are from "independent" organizations that do not have to disclose their contributors, leaving voters in the dark as to the special interests involved. Those ads allow a candidate benefiting from a "dark-money" funded attack to deny responsibility.

I miss the era when candidates issued detailed policy proposals and then held extended news conferences to explain their plans. I fondly remember decades ago when the TV studio in my former Capitol newsroom was used by candidates to provide reporters with detailed written proposals followed by lengthy questioning.

That issue-focused approach had several major advantages.

It obviously provided Missourians with a more solid foundation to make voting decisions. But it also helped Missouri residents, as well as reporters, to better understand the complexities of policy issues facing government. Further, a winning candidate who stressed a significant policy issue was handed a mandate by the voters to overcome governmental inaction.

Two governors stand out as perfect examples.

In 1972, Kit Bond campaigned on a plan to restrict special-interest influence in government. His victory empowered him to lead the successful, bipartisan legislative effort for campaign and lobbyist disclosure requirements, as well as the state's Sunshine Law requiring public access to government meetings and records.

Cleaning up government was an easy and safe campaign theme so soon after Watergate.

Two decades later, Mel Carnahan campaigned for governor on what appeared to be a sure election killer – a tax increase for education. Although Carnahan conditioned his proposal on voter approval, his election victory made it easier for the legislature to adopt an education tax increase without voter approval.

Carnahan and Bond demonstrated that a campaign based on substantive issues can leave a lasting legacy.

But not every candidate has won by making a potentially unpopular public policy proposal a campaign issue.

In 2000, Republican Jim Talent narrowly was defeated by Democrat Bob Holden, who attacked Talent's idea for a highway-improvement bond issue. As governor, Holden's alternative plan, worked out with Republicans, was overwhelmingly defeated by Missouri voters.

To be honest, I'm not optimistic we ever will return to an era when the campaign season was a time for a meaningful public policy discussion on detailed proposals. The growing focus on purist ideology has been a factor. So too has been the growing pressure for partisan loyalty by candidates.

Social media plays a role with the meaningless, sometimes snarky, posts that often dominate public attention. Compounding the problem are the secretly funded special interests with so much money that they can dominate discussion with ads designed to further their financial interests, rather than educate the public.

It all contributes to an environment that I suspect leads many candidates to focus their campaigns on simply getting elected rather than using their campaigns to champion ideas to improve government.

This current political environment is so different from Abraham Lincoln's plea in his 1861 inaugural address that his country be "touched ... by the better angels of our nature."

Phill Brooks has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps. He is director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.

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