In July of 2011, when Mitt Romney looked like he had a better-than-even chance at beating President Obama, conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer declared that the 2012 election would be the “definitive resolution” of a grand ideological war between those who want to roll back the welfare state and those who want to advance it — conservatives’ “chance to restructure government and change the ideological course of the country.”
Now that Obama is the odds-on favorite to win this November, progressive columnist Paul Krugman essentially argues the same thing, only with an assumption of triumph for the liberal cause. Krugman writes: “Voters are, in effect, being asked to deliver a verdict on the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, on Social Security, Medicare and, yes, Obamacare, which represents an extension of that legacy.” Because of that, Krugman says, Obama “should just say no” to budget dealmarking with Republicans reminiscent of last year’s bargaining. Accepting a plan based on the Simpson-Bowles budget framework “would be betraying the trust of the voters who returned him to office.” Obama’s real task would be passing another stimulus and “preserving and extending” the welfare state.
Krugman now is about as right as Krauthammer was then.
Krugman’s case rests, firstly, on the notion that an Obama victory represents a total denunciation of a clear Republican agenda to dismantle the New Deal. This, ironically, gives the GOP more credit for being straightforward with voters than it deserves, buying into Paul Ryan’s argument that the GOP ticket has offered them a “big choice.” But Romney has not been so clear about his intentions. In front of one camera, he talks about freedom from government. Before another, he endorses a safety net for the poor and venerates the universal health-care plan he signed as governor of Massachusetts. It wouldn’t be outrageous for voters to speculate that Romney is really a moderate. Indeed, Krugman himself often has complained that Romney refuses to be specific with voters about his ideas. That squishiness in itself is likely to drive lots of voters toward Obama before they even try to decipher Romney’s views on the welfare state.
Krugman’s argument relies, secondly, on the absurd idea that a vote for Obama also represents an affirmative endorsement of Krugman’s — not Obama’s! — agenda. This claim is possible in part because Obama, too, has been less-than-clear — about exactly how he would change Medicare and Social Security. So Krugman opportunistically frames the election as a plain decision between everything he favors versus the other side’s vision. It is an argument astonishingly self-serving in its oversimplicity. Obama voters can favor maintaining a safety net and want to reform it in ways Krugman hates.
Elections do matter. Presidents fill Supreme Court vacancies, set the domestic agenda and run America’s foreign policy. I also share Krugman’s distaste for the ultra-conservative Jacobins whose intransigence has manipulated America’s politics in the last two years, and I think a majority of Americans would, too. But progressives should not fall into the trap of over-interpreting election results, as the Tea Party did in 2010. Voters rarely send clear, ideologically-consistent directions to the country’s leaders, which is part of why a measure of modesty and an openness to compromise among the people’s elected representatives is so important.