August 13, 2012


I’ve said before that Romney wanted to make this election a referendum on the New Deal, and now he seems to have done exactly that. I really don’t believe he picked Ryan under pressure from the Tea Party; if it looked like he could coast to victory he might have gone with a more boring choice, but Ryan is just the kind of hard-core conservative who is most compatible with what we can plausibly assume to be Romney’s own beliefs. (Although I am not the first to note the irony, given his touting of his business experience as essential to the ability to lead the country, that his running mate’s entire career has been in Congress.)

As I’ve also said, the whole primary contest wasn’t about Mitt’s degree of conservatism but his particular flavor of conservatism. If he’d picked someone better known for religious-right culture-war credentials, or for race- or immigrant-baiting, that would look more like panic.

So now it’s Romney-Ryan, and everyone in both parties is professing to be delighted with the fact. Actually I think Ezra Klein hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

Both Democrats and conservatives are going to get the exact debate they wanted. I’m not so sure about Republicans.

Because there is a very real possibility that senior citizens and other beneficiaries of government programs will totally freak out over the Ryan budget, making the election another 1964. Maybe not, but at least there’s a clearer choice than we’ve had in a while. No side issues like patriotism or sexual morality to induce people who don’t really buy conservative economic theory to vote Republican anyway; nor even a chance that people will vote Republican because they like the sound of the anti-“big government” slogans, without thinking through what they mean in practice. The Obama campaign will have and will take every opportunity to spell it out in gory detail. For the first time, if the Republicans do win, no one can deny that they have a clear mandate to roll up the safety net and run the country like the Depression never happened. And if they lose, it will be equally clear that all their victories over the past few decades were due to those side issues they managed to wrap themselves in. We shall see.

Another commentator, Amy Walter of ABC news, argues that the average swing voter doesn’t want an ideological battle:

They aren’t spending their evenings debating the benefits of Hayek or Keynesian economic models. They are just trying to figure out which candidate is capable of getting something done. They will reward the politician who succeeds in getting things moving again. But that shouldn’t be taken as proof that voters are endorsing the philosophical underpinnings of that success.

In other words, voters are looking less at ideology and more at competency.

Tell that to Mike Dukakis. I mean, Walter may be right that a significant number of voters do feel that way, but it is still unrealistic. There’s no point in discussing competence if we disagree radically about what we want done in the first place. Clearly President Obama, whatever one thinks of his personal abilities, could have carried out at least somewhat more of his agenda if he hadn’t been obstructed by the Republicans in Congress;  where we disagree is on whether this would have been a good thing or a bad thing. There’s been a lot of handwringing in the pundit class for decades over “failed Presidencies,” but the fact is most of us can think of some things we are glad that one or another President has failed at; we’re just split down the middle over which things. If either side wins a decisive victory this November, maybe it will put the question behind us for a while…


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