Via Andrew Sullivan, Politico complains that the 2012 campaign is the “smallest” ever. Here the lament:

For years, operatives, reporters and potential nominees envisioned the 2012 presidential campaign as a titanic clash of media-swarmed combatants with big ideas about the future. In the Republican primaries, this was almost a mantra: this is the most important campaign in a generation.

So why does it feel so small? 

Dating to the beginning of the cycle, 2012 has unfolded so far as a grinding, joyless slog, falling short in every respect of the larger-than-life personalities and debates of the 2008 campaign.

There have been small-ball presidential campaigns before, but veteran strategists and observers agree this race is reaching a record degree of triviality. Nothing previously can compare with a race being fought hour by hour in 140-character Twitter increments and blink-and-you-miss-it cable segments. Not to mention an endless flood of caustic television ads.

The piece considers several explanations for the banality of the campaign, including the accelerated news cycle, the defensive strategies adopted by both campaigns, and a gaffe-obsessed press corps. But it doesn’t question the premise that there’s something inherently desirable or appropriate about titanic clashes between larger-than-life personalities and their competing master plans.

I don’t see why that should be the case. Although they are certainly more exciting for journalists and political operatives, “big” campaigns promote the illusion of the primacy of politics in general, and of the presidency in particular. No matter what they say on the stump, presidents have little opportunity to realize a distinctive vision for the country.

In the first place, most presidents carry on the policies of their predecessors to a much greater extent than either their supporters or critics like to admit. One example is the adoption by President Obama of Bush-era national security policies that Candidate Obama condemned. Second, presidents just don’t have much control over many of the most important problems that they face. Consider Obama’s impotence in the face of the European economic crisis, which considerably affects not only his chances for reelection, but also the options that may be available to his second administration. Finally, as we’re reminded at every nominating convention, talk is cheap. I haven’t noticed any correlation between bold applause lines and bold policies.

If they’re unlikely to translate into big changes, why do we want big campaigns? The answer, I suspect, is that they’re an expression of national narcissism. Big campaigns encourage Americans to believe that we’re  the sole masters of our destiny. If we just put our minds to it, they say, we can accomplish whatever we wish.

But that’s just not true–and never has been. Rather than failure to go big, then, one of the main problems with the present campaign is that neither candidate is willing to talk about the international, economic, and legislative constraints under which he would operate while in the White House. A small campaign doesn’t have to be trivial, although it may not be rhetorically galvanizing. But one that refuses, like this one, to take seriously the limits of will and vision will always be juvenile and empty.