Do elections have consequences? The answer to that question seems less and less obvious to many Americans. I view a lot of polling on a lot of subjects, much of it non-political these days, and whenever the topics intersect with politics generally or the presidential election specifically, I often hear people say that neither candidate can fix our problems. This doesn’t mean they don't express a preference for one over the other, but they believe that the system is so rigged or so polarized that nothing meaningful will change. Of course, they have lots of supporting evidence. The growing influence of special interest money and legislative gridlock are the culprits most named.

Behind these facts lie many complicated factors going back many years: the personalization of campaigns around individuals, not issues; the capture of both parties by their respective interest groups and the disappearance of centrists — latest example, Ohio Rep. Steven LaTourette; the inability of either party’s dwindling thought leaders to come up with innovative answers to the central and unprecedented challenge facing the United States: the decline in our standard of living.

Where is the outrage, to quote a former presidential candidate? It exists in pockets: the Occupy Wall Steet movement and the tea party. But the vast majority of Americans — voters and non-voters — accept the status quo. Perhaps they are too busy with their own struggles to see any connection to politics; perhaps they’ve been burned too many times by false promises and dashed expectations; perhaps some simply don’t see the connection between what happens in the shout fest that is Washington and their future. But the consequence is this: Too many voters don’t take the time to educate themselves about the real differences between the candidates.

In 2000, a time of peace and prosperity — imagine that — reporters and my more honest friends would say to me: There’s really not that much of a difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore. They’ll govern about the same. This might have been due to the excellent job done of smoothing off some of Bush’s rougher edges: compassionate conservative was a brilliant and reassuring phrase. My best, but still ineffectua,l response to those who claimed the election didn’t matter was to point them to how each candidate would spend the nation’s surplus. At the time, few of us understood — although Gore did — that the decision on the surplus would probably guide the nation’s fortunes for many years. Bush, as you recall, had a simple plan: return the money to taxpayers — the infamous Bush tax cuts — disproportionately benefitting the wealthy — that so blew a hole in the deficit and are still burdening our nation today. Gore's plan spent the surplus — conservatively estimated at $4.5 trillion over 10 years much more wisely: about 10 percent for targeted middle class tax cuts, about half into insuring the long-term solvency of Medicare and Social Security; some new investments in a prescription drug benefit — Gore would have paid for this; Bush stuck it in the deficit — education, health care and ameliorating climate change — all while preserving $300 billion for a rainy day fund.

This may be ancient history, but it’s instructive. So much that plagues our nation today had its roots in what we decided to do with the extraordinary bounty that was the nation’s surplus. Bush blew it on tax cuts, saying it would fuel economic expansion. Not only did that not pan out, but it meant that other national priorities like preserving Social Security and Medicare were ignored, all while the deficit exploded — because of those decisions, as well as the way we chose to fund the war in Iraq.

After the election of 2012, the nation will face a crossroads as fateful as that following the 2000 election. How will we save our country from another recession — or pull us out of one — as well as simultaneously tackling the challenge — longer-term — of our national debt. While neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney has put forward the specificity of Gore or Bush, the basic contours of what each will do is pretty clear. Romney wants more tax cuts and likes Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. Obama wants to end the Bush tax cuts going to the wealthiest Americans and favors a very different approach to deficit reduction. So, once again, the choice is before our eyes. Will we choose to see it?