2012 Is about the Past and the Future

One ongoing theme in this election is the extent to which political observers are simply bored with it. Last month, Politico’s Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns expressed frustration with the “small scale” of the election, and today, The New York Times’ Peter Baker echoes the concern, with a piece on how the campaigns are relitigating the past rather than articulating a vision for the future:

Mr. Obama’s campaign on Thursday hammered Mr. Romney over business deals from the turn of the century, just days after the president summoned supporters to the East Room for the latest salvo over tax cuts enacted by his predecessor a decade ago. Mr. Romney’s Republican supporters in Congress countered by voting in the House to repeal Mr. Obama’s two-year-old health care program and by trying to force a Senate vote on President George W. Bush’s tax cuts.

“It’s just rearguing and rearguing and rearguing,” said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma and author of a book to be published next month about what he sees as the current dysfunction in American politics and governance. “In most elections, especially for president, what you get is: Here is my vision, here’s where I’m going to take the country. And there’s none of it.”

I’m not sure that the campaigns have spent that much time arguing over the past. But if you grant that they have, it’s not hard to see why. One of the most notable things about the Bush administration—and so far, the Obama presidency—is the extent to which we’ve continuously deferred important questions about the structure of our society. We argue over the Bush tax cuts, in part, because we haven’t settled the argument; do we want a low tax (and necessarily low service) society, or one that attempts to provide a minimal safety net to its citizens? The ongoing fight over the Affordable Care Act comes from a similar place—do we see health care as a right? And to what extent are we willing to secure it?

Whether you support Obamacare or would like to see lower taxes on the wealthy says a lot about where you want the country to go. Indeed, if you widen your aperture, you’ll see the extent to which these arguments over the past are actually fights about the future. Between Romney’s support for the Ryan plan and the ongoing agenda of the Obama administration, Americans have a stark choice for the direction of the country. This November, the public will have to choose between the promise of a larger, more activist government that expands its obligations to ordinary people, or a radically smaller government that will reduce or end assistance to the poor, the middle-class, and the elderly.

The day-to-day horse race notwithstanding, this election is genuinely momentous in a way that isn’t true of all presidential elections. You could say that this contest is highly path dependent—the winner of 2012 will determine the shape of American politics for at least the next decade, and possibly longer.

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