The country that produced a nine-year run for a television show that was about nothing – Seinfeld – often produces election campaigns that seem to last nine years and are resolutely about nothing. Not this time, though. This American election is nastier, more brutal and shorter than most—and it’s not about nothing. It may, in fact, be about everything.
Every several decades, the United States has these sort of elections – contests where the country seems to approach one of the hinges of history, going for an expansive role for government in the 1932 election that catapulted Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency during the Great Depression, for example, or going for a more restrictive role in the 1980 election that gave Ronald Reagan the role of his lifetime in the run-up to the end of the Cold War.
No one will say next November that the two major-party candidates don’t have a dime’s difference between them – the devastating critique Alabama governor George Wallace used to describe Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey in 1968. The Democrats will put forward Barack Obama, the slayer of Osama bin Laden, the proponent of vigorous regulation to combat Wall Street abuses but the president of a country whose jobless rate remains stubbornly at 9 per cent. Whomever the Republicans put forward, Mr. Obama’s opponent will be an apostle of deep spending cuts, an opponent of new taxes, an advocate of easier financial and consumer regulation and a skeptic of nation-building and an activist U.S. role overseas.
Sometimes, it seems as if the two parties are occupying different universes. In Congress, where liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats once made common cause, the chasm between the two parties is wider than the aisles that separate them – indeed, wider than at any time in memory. In fact, for the first time in the modern era, there’s no ideological intersection between the two parties. The most liberal Republican, a phrase that increasingly is an oxymoron, is more conservative than the most conservative Democrat, a phrase that also seems an antique.
Which is one of the reasons the presidential campaign that gets under way in earnest with the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses is so vital.
The next president will very likely not occupy a middle ground nor walk a middle path. That’s because, while there’s a discernible middle among U.S. voters, there’s no middle in the two contending political establishments. Mr. Obama is not the socialist his rivals portray him as – they’ve apparently never met a European socialist, to say nothing of a Soviet Communist – but he’s clearly on the left of the spectrum.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, still the most likely Republican nominee, isn’t the right-wing stalwart he’s playing in the Republican primaries, but he’s plainly on the right side of the spectrum. U.S. candidates used to straddle the middle so as to try to appeal to the middle. This time, they’re only doing the second half of that equation.
The result for 2012 is that rare thing in American politics: a choice that will make a difference.
Here are some of the questions at issue: Should the country press ahead with a comprehensive overhaul of health care or peel away at the Obamacare program passed in 2010? Should Washington regulate how banks and other financial institutions behave and pay their executives? How should the country pay for retirement supplements and health-care obligations undertaken when the country was richer and younger, now that it’s poorer and older? Are central banks such as the Federal Reserve redoubts of tyranny or tools to tame, or spur, the economy? Are taxes the price of civilization or a threat to freedom?
These questions tell us this is not a choice between two versions of the same vision. The elegists on both sides of the U.S. political divide have added a romantic mist to the 1960 choice between John Kennedy and Mr. Nixon, portraying it as a turning point in the nation’s passage. But, in truth, the two men – both in their 40s, both naval veterans of the Second World War, both entering Congress in 1947, both moving to the Senate shortly thereafter, both outspoken anti-Communists, both defence hawks – had remarkably similar profiles. That won’t be said in 2012, or by historians 50 years later looking back at this contest.
Instead, once the clatter about Herman Cain’s alleged sexual harassment and Texas Governor Rick Perry’s debate performances is cleared away, this election actually will be about something: the sort of government – interventionist or laissez-faire on the economy, moved by taxes or budget cuts on the deficit – that Americans want for the remainder of the first quarter of the 21st century. It’s about more than just the next four years, for the decisions made and the direction taken in the 2013-2017 presidential term won’t easily be undone.
In 1968, the Nixon commercials ended with the tagline: This time vote like your whole world depended on it. This time, it actually may.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of U.S. politics.