There has been one consistent message from both President Obama and Mitt Romney (and, before him, the other GOP candidates) about what’s at the heart of this 2012 election. Everything else revolves around that one thing: the size and scope of government.
In a recent column, the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib put the difference between the two men’s plans — Obama’s for Washington to spend 22.5 percent of GDP in the coming years, vs. Romney’s to reduce spending levels to 20 percent — at $6 trillion over 10 years:
In the view of Obama partisans, it’s the difference between a government that keeps its promise to senior citizens counting on Medicare and one that doesn’t, and the difference between a country that invests in the education, infrastructure and basic research needed to be competitive, and one that falls behind the Chinese and the other roaring new economic powers.
In the eyes of Romney partisans, it’s the difference between a country that trims spending close to the average of recent decades rather than one that eats up resources on government programs, and between a nation that relies on the private sector for a new wave of economic growth and one that slides toward European socialism and declining personal freedom.
Neither side shies away from such dramatic descriptions. Mr. Obama plans a speech Thursday in Cleveland that aides say will help frame the election as a choice between fundamentally different views. Mr. Romney’s economic manifesto’s conclusion is entitled simply, “A Stark Choice.”
This is why it wasn’t surprising to hear Obama last week emphasize the public sector in his remarks about the economy and what’s holding back growth. In his view, government makes choices and “investments” that direct and drive economic growth. (It hasn’t happened yet on his watch, but that apparently is still George Bush’s fault.)
And that’s why it isn’t surprising to hear Romney talk about the morality of capitalism and dispute the idea that we’ll revive the economy by borrowing (more) money to hire more teachers, firefighters and police officers.
This is the whole shooting match. Every other issue is an offshoot of, or distraction from, this fundamental disagreement.
The electorate has split sharply in each direction in recent years — toward bigger government in 2008, and toward smaller government in 2010. It’s hard to say if either side can earn such a clear victory this fall. But the key, as a recent Democratic strategy memo by James Carville’s group makes clear, will be arguing for a brighter future.
In my view, the side that better makes the case for itself, rather than against the other, wins the election. Neither side is really moving in that direction yet. There may be a first-mover advantage to the one that gets there the quickest.
– By Kyle Wingfield