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We've seen these political debates before

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, October 18, 2010; A19

Politicians always like to assure us that our future lies before us. But in this midterm election they seem increasingly pointed toward the past.

On the Republican side, the reigning model remains Ronald Reagan, who was elected president three decades ago. Reagan blithely showed that government can't cut taxes without increasing deficits, but that hasn't discouraged GOP candidates from recycling his discredited fairy-tale economics this fall.

A hot issue for some Republicans is the repeal of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, ending people's right to elect their senators and returning that task to state legislatures. Repeal would take us back to 1913. Then there are Republican candidates, such as Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, who would let schools teach the creationism myth. That would take us back to, oh, 1859, when Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species."

By contrast, the Democrats go back only a couple of years when they seek to turn the election into a referendum on an ex-president these days seen mostly at Texas Rangers playoff games. They go back another century or so when they cast the election as the little guy against "Big Banks, Big Oil, and Big Insurance companies," as Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently wrote in a fundraising letter, and never mind the donations Democrats happily took from "Big Oil" and "Big Banks" when the D's were comfortably in the majority.

This is the first election since the collapse of the American financial system and a near-death experience for the global economy. There is widespread agreement that the pillars of past U.S. growth, such as cheap credit and taxpayer-subsidized housing, will have to be replaced. But by what? And how will the transformation take place? You might have hoped to hear such questions debated this year.

It's not that President Obama, for one, hasn't tried. For the past two years he has propounded, frequently and at length, a theory of the economic transformation America needs, built on the reform of health care, education and energy. He's even told Americans they will have to "consume less and produce more," as the Post's Charles Lane noted earlier this year.

And he hasn't stopped during the campaign. "This is what we stand for," Obama told a town hall meeting last week. "Innovation, research and development, skilled workers, lifelong learning -- all the things that are required to make sure that this is a competitive 21st-century America that is playing for number one on the global stage."

But the vision hasn't caught hold. Maybe, as Democrats would argue, that's because the White House hasn't communicated well and voters are too angry and frustrated to listen to reason. Maybe, as Republicans would say, it's because most Americans don't want a more active federal government. Or maybe voters suspect that Obama seized on new circumstances to justify programs he would have supported in any case, much as President Bush always settled on the same solution (tax cuts) for any problem.

So the Democrats, including Obama, have turned to demonizing free enterprise and the openness to the world that would be essential to Obama's vision of a nation of innovative exporters.

Diatribes against corporations that "ship jobs overseas," ominous television ads alleging that Chinese money is flooding to conservative interest groups, insinuations that Republican candidates are marching to foreigners' drums -- these are messages intended to whip up and capitalize on fear and xenophobia.

Voters in many states and congressional districts are left with a depressing, backward-looking debate. They face a choice, but only of villain: Big Government or Big Business. If there are new ideas out there for sustaining U.S. leadership and restoring U.S. prosperity, they are not getting much air time. Honest talk about how to get the deficit under control is getting even less.

Maybe this is inevitable at a time of 17 percent un- and under-employment. Or maybe it's leaving room for candidates, and a party, that would behave as if the future really does lie ahead.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

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