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Posted at 09:08 AM ET, 10/19/2012

What the election’s about

[On the road again today, this time briefly to New Jersey. I am ready for a staycation, folks.]

Question: What’s this election about? I don’t think it’s about Benghazi. Charles Krauthammer argues that Obama made a terrible gaffe in discussing what happened after the terrorist attack in Libya. And of course the big moment in Debate 2 was Romney’s accusation that Obama waited 2 weeks to call it a terrorist attack and Candy Crowley correcting Romney (inciting conservative attacks on Candy Crowley, etc., etc.). I’ll just note that, as I’ve been on the road talking to voters, I haven’t met anyone who is focused primarily on foreign policy, and I’m not sure a single person has ever volunteered a thought about the Benghazi tragedy and the administration’s handling of it. That strikes me as a Beltway debate.

Most people in these swing states are focused on domestic issues, starting with the economy, jobs, taxes, debt, entitlements, income inequality and in some cases the social issues such as gun laws, gay marriage and abortion.

Voters are being given a clear choice in this election, in the sense that Obama and Romney represent distinct visions about the future of government policies. More broadly, the Democrats and Republicans have real differences of philosophies, and those differences have become more pronounced as the parties (the Republicans in particular) have eliminated apostates and wobblers. [BTW, I wish I knew more about the House and Senate races. Those of us on the politics-feature beat spend too much time obsessing over the presidential race and ignore the other 3 branches of government (legislative, judicial, Oprah). In the same way we expect the president to run the entire economy and foreign policy and also decide whether there should be an NCAA football playoff, we also act as if the presidential race determines what the country is thinking and what we prefer. And then we struggle to explain how it is that, say, Michigan has a Republican governor and a Republican legislature and yet seems to keep voting Democratic in the presidential race. Wisconsin, too, is a Republican state if you just look at the legislature. But Michigan and Wisconsin, like Pennsylvania, have to be part of Obama’s portfolio if he’s going to be re-elected.]

There’s been a lot of talk about Romney’s “47 percent” comment, often referred to as a “gaffe.” But in a crude sense, Romney’s gaffe is Paul Ryan’s ideology. When Romney made his 47 percent comment he seemed to be channeling Ryan.

Ryan believes our country began to get into dangerous territory right about the time of the New Deal. Then things got really dicey with the Great Society of the 1960s. He’d roll back the government radically. He deeply believes that our country is teetering on a character crisis because of government policies that have turned the safety net into a hammock (this is not my metaphor, it’s one popular with the GOP).

Ryan’s position isn’t something captured on a secret videotape when the news media were out of the room. It’s part of his 2010 manifesto, his Roadmap for the Future. For example, Ryan states:

‘Until recently, Americans were known and admired everywhere for their hopeful determination to assume responsibility for the quality of their own lives; to rely on their own work and initiative; and to improve opportunities for their children to prosper in the future. But over time, Americans have been lured into viewing government – more than themselves, their families, their communities, their faith – as their main source of support; they have been drawn toward depending on the public sector for growing shares of their material and personal well-being. The trend drains individual initiative and personal responsibility. It creates an aversion to risk, sapping the entrepreneurial spirit necessary for growth, innovation, and prosperity. In turn, it subtly and gradually suffocates the creative potential for prosperity.

‘Now America is approaching a “tipping point” beyond which the Nation will be unable to change course – and this will lead to disastrous fiscal consequences, and an erosion of economic prosperity and the American character itself.’

That’s a carefully crafted philosophical statement. Do voters agree?

Or do they believe that the bigger peril to the nation’s prosperity and character would be to cut back on government spending (“investment” as Obama calls it)?

Do we want more government involvement in the economy or less? Or have we got it calibrated about right? Do we need radical changes or more modest reforms? When the Democrats and Republicans finally decide on a Grand Bargain (and they have to, eventually, because otherwise the numbers will never add up), who should be in the White House to sign that bill into law?

Who is the best person to make the tough decisions at the top?

I think that’s what the election is about.

By  |  09:08 AM ET, 10/19/2012

 
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