Both the left and right agree that 2011 was a year for drawing lines, for setting forth distinct positions and, ultimately, for gridlock. The latter is inevitable when the two major parties have fundamentally different assessments of the role of government, the requirements for a job-creating economy and even the meaning of “equality.”
President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress have grown the size of government, devoting a larger share of gross domestic product to the public sector. They want their handiwork cemented and therefore insist that taxes be raised. When combined with an increasingly shrill demand to narrow “inequality” — that is, equality of results — they present a soak-the-rich agenda. Inequality, not unemployment, becomes the target of their agenda. That requires a great deal of government supervision to rearrange society.
Republicans have seen the enemy, and we are it. More specifically, the problem they have discerned is the insistence that we spend money we don’t have and continue transferring wealth from the private to public sector. They resist the effort to permanently affix a larger federal government and see no hope for private-sector growth without a reduction in the regulatory burden, a flattening and simplification of the tax code, and fiscal sobriety.
You can understand why we experienced one confrontation after another in 2011, leaving government in permanent gridlock and barely avoiding default and other fiscal calamities. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who became the effective legislative and ideological leader of his party, described two contrasting visions, one aimed at redistributing the pie and the other at growing it; one that empowers government to play an ever-expanding role in directing economic and personal behavior and the other that aims to reform government to promote personal choice and responsibility. Mitt Romney, who may well be the leader of the GOP at the end of the primary process, has presented a nearly identical choice: an entitlement society vs. an opportunity society.
The 2012 election will therefore be not only a referendum on Obama’s economic performance but a choice between these two philosophies. Obama would like us to believe it is the choice between civilization and the law of the jungle. But whether the Republican presidential nominee is Romney or another candidate, the choice is actually more modest than that. Both Ryan and Romney aim to preserve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, redesigning them to maintain their long-term viability. As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did at the state level, these Republicans seek not to remove public health coverage or retirement programs but to readjust expectations and limit future benefits to prevent insolvency of the type we’ve seen in Ireland, Italy, Greece and California. Instead of a government that consumes a quarter of our GDP, they seek one to keep its appetite at about 20 percent. This is significant but not draconian, no matter how hysterical campaign ads from the Democratic National Committee become.
The 2012 presidential election, we would like to think, will produce a clear signal from voters as to which direction they favor. But election results are never so decisive as the winners would have us believe. Will we wind up with a decisive victory for President Romney or President Santorum, a Republican House and a filibuster-proof Republican Senate majority? I doubt it. Will we get a decisive victory for President Obama, a Democratic House and a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate majority? I doubt it.
So after all of this, we will in all likelihood wind up with a mixed message and a still-divided government. The balance may shift in one direction or the other, but neither party will vanquish the other.
We therefore will be electing a president, who for all the foot-stomping by his base to “fight, fight, fight!” the other side, will need to figure out how to accommodate the opposition, strike agreements and address our considerable fiscal challenges. The liberal base has pushed Obama to be more strident nd confrontational. The right blogosphere has skewered Romney for being insufficiently venomous in his attacks and inadequately rigid in his ideology. But ironically, the president we will need beginning in January 2013 must be someone who can not merely confront but govern and not excoriate but persuade. In short, what the right and left demanded of their standard bearers in 2011 is not what the country will need in 2013.
We made this mistake in 2008, of course. The country voted for gauzy rhetoric and charisma but found itself yearning for competence and adult leadership. The Democrats have made their choice for 2012, but Republicans are only beginning their nominating process. While their hearts may long for a firebrand, their heads should tell them that come 2013 they’ll need someone to govern, a task for which Obama is especially ill-suited. Despite the yelps from the right blogosphere and the media portrayal of the GOP base as rabid, it may be that Republican voters have figured this out. As you’ve no doubt noticed, the two candidates rising to the the top of the field are the former governor of Massachusetts, who learned to govern in a deep-blue state, and a former Pennsylvania senator who talks about his ability to forge bipartisan deals (on welfare reform, Iran sanctions and partial-birth abortion).
Maybe Republican primary voters are more judicious and farsighted than they are portrayed. They seem intent on finding someone who can win and then govern. If they succeed, they will do a great service to the conservative movement, the GOP and the country.