This week the American presidential race enters a new phase, pivoting swiftly but seamlessly from a struggle for the Republican nomination to a general-election campaign between two men with vastly different backgrounds, outlooks, philosophies and personalities.
This doesn’t happen every time in American politics. In the 2000 contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush, for example, both candidates were graduates of Ivy League colleges, struggled to create an identity separate from their famous fathers, and were members of the same generation, shaped by the war in Vietnam and the turbulence of Watergate.
But don’t let the surface similarities between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney – the fact that the two of them, both natural introverts, hold degrees from Harvard Law School – distract you from the very great differences between them.
One is the son of an itinerant academic who returned to his native Africa, the other is the son of a Detroit auto executive who was a distinguished governor of Michigan and a member of the Nixon cabinet. One was part of the striving class, the other is from the upper crust. One had a rearing full of upheaval, the other a childhood marked by family stability. One cut his teeth as a community organizer in Chicago, the other as a venture capitalist in Boston. One came to his religion late, the other from birth. The differences between the two quite literally are black and white.
The usual physics of American elections forces the Democratic and Republican nominees to move to the centre after bruising primary fights fought on the political extremities. This may prevail in 2012 as well. But important differences – some personal, some political, some growing out of their wildly different life stories – separate the two men, and they provide the libretto for the election campaign that began in earnest this week.
The principal clash comes over the role of government. Mr. Obama’s Washington is an activist place, where regulators are revered, where government interference in the economy is regarded as a social good, and where the responsibility for assuring the cleanliness of the air, the health of mine workers, the rights of the consumer, and the safety of automobiles, household products and toys lies with the government. Mr. Romney’s conception is quite the opposite, embracing a more market-oriented approach and arguing that government intrusion is a hazardous brake on economic growth.
This is a fundamental divide in American life, dating to the earliest days of the country, and this period of history – like the Progressive era of the early 20th century, the New Deal period and the Lyndon Johnson Great Society years – puts these clashing notions of government at the centre of the political debate.
This tension is all the more important because each party has a dissatisfied wing, anxious, rebellious, vocal, stubborn and frustrated. Both candidates will try, probably with minimal success, to placate these voters, hoping that at the very least they will draw them to the polls. In a close election, party turnout is vital, and neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Romney can afford to leave disaffected voters at home on Election Day.
For Mr. Obama, that left wing is impatient about the President’s embrace of business values, is disappointed that he has trimmed the aggressiveness of government agencies in the marketplace, and is harbouring a sense of betrayal over the compromises he made to win a landmark overhaul of the health care system.
For Mr. Romney, that right wing is doubtful of his conservative bona fides, unsettled about his moderate past as the Massachusetts governor who supported a health care plan dangerously similar to Obamacare, suspicious of his motives and troubled by his plutocratic profile, which is so discordant with the more populist, Main Street approach of former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who left the race this week.
But for all that, this campaign, like every American election, comes down to a question of geography and mathematics. In the end, each candidate must assemble the 270 electoral votes required for victory in November.
Mr. Obama cannot count on some of the states that he carried in 2008, especially Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and maybe Colorado and New Mexico. Mr. Romney lost primary campaigns in Mississippi and Alabama, which voted Republican in 10 of the last 12 presidential elections. He is likely to prevail in those states and across the South, where Mr. Obama is very unpopular and the GOP is strong, but the question is whether he can win in Ohio and Michigan, which he narrowly carried in the primaries but which are vital, but not inevitable, for Republican presidential candidates.
All these are unknowns. But there are other unknowns hidden in the political landscape – the economy at home and in Europe, Iran, terrorism, the restive Arab world, to name only a few. Together these unknowns make the resolution of Campaign 2012 unknown as well. But at least it has begun. And this time it matters.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of U.S. politics.