Election 2012

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, listens to his vice presidential pick, Wis. Rep. Paul Ryan, Sunday in High Point, N.C. (AP)

Whether or not the choice of Paul Ryan as the vice presidential candidate is good for Republican electoral prospects, it is certainly good for the country. Every so often, but not very, a presidential campaign actually focuses the nation’s attention on the most important questions the country faces. Then the campaign prompts a profound national debate rather than simply a choice between candidates and parties. Ryan’s place on the ticket makes it likely that 2012 will prove to be such an epochal election.

In 1860 Abraham Lincoln pressed the case against expanding slavery to the territories while his various opponents clearly and forcefully favored slavery expansion. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan pushed the Democrats away from their tight money conservatism and turned the campaign into a debate about the relative merits of agrarian populism and corporate industrialism. Lincoln won. Bryan lost. But in both cases voters were pressed to choose between profoundly different visions of the nation’s future.

By contrast, the 1960 and 2000 presidential campaigns showed just how meaningless campaign rhetoric can be. In those elections the Republican and Democratic candidates had great difficulty finding anything significant to disagree about. Because John F. Kennedy is revered, and George W. Bush is not, it is tempting to forget just how similar their views were to those held by their opponents. JFK harped on the “missile gap” between the Soviets and the U.S. that the Eisenhower/Nixon administration had allowed to develop, and which he knew did not exist. Since Kennedy and Nixon’s foreign and defense policies were so similar, the televised debates between them were dominated by their differences about how robustly to defend Quemoy and Matsu, two small islands off the coast of China controlled by Taiwan. In the absence of much else to talk about, both Bush and Gore spent considerable verbiage swearing their fidelity to Social Security. Gore sought to differentiate his position by promising to put it in a “lock box.”

Obama and Romney are bitter rivals, but so were Lincoln and his three opponents: Douglas, Breckenridge and Bell. Bush and Gore were not exactly chums. In presidential elections enmity is perfectly compatible with vapidity. Often the more venomous a campaign is the less substance it contains. Remember Barack versus Hillary? As long as the 2012 contest focused on the weak economy it was guaranteed to remain boring and superficial. The nasty truth is that neither candidate and neither party really knows how to fix the economy and so they are free to simply hurl invectives at one another. The choice of Ryan should push the debate away from such shenanigans and rivet public attention on the most important domestic issue of our times: what to do about the future of old age pensions and Medicare.

Whether Ryan’s plan to deal with these two problems is good or not, it is a plan based on clear-cut political-philosophical principles. Ryan’s presence on the ticket propels his plan to the top of the campaign agenda. Both he and Romney will have to clarify and defend it and the political-economic vision that underlies it. Likewise, Obama and Biden will have to clarify and defend an alternative plan and the differing political economic understanding on which theirs is based. It will force people to make choices about how best to provide for old age.

The Ryan plan would provide a refundable tax credit to families and individuals to purchase their own health care, and it offers workers under 55 the option of investing over one-third of their Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts whose investments they would control. The Obama administration firmly supports the existing Social Security system, though it has not yet said how it will raise the money to pay for the system when it goes broke. The Obama health care plan promises to save money on Medicare by reducing payments to doctors and hospitals, not by any change in the current Medicare entitlement.

Beneath these specifics lies a much broader philosophical divide. The Obama administration identifies with the tradition of Social Democracy as that movement has taken hold in Britain and Northern Europe. Social Democratic government is largely about providing high-quality social services to citizens. Such a view implies toleration of whatever loss of initiative and over-reliance on government this way of governing produces. Ryan, and Romney, support a much more limited government and far greater reliance on the private sector. Ryan’s plan doesn’t seek to end the welfare state, but it places firm limits on its growth and requires individuals to assume more responsibility for their old age. Such a view implies toleration for whatever increased personal insecurity this way of governing produces.

Neither of these visions of government is trivial or stupid, but at some point a choice between them is required. This could be the time. A presidential campaign that focused on the appropriate size and scope of government would yield politics of a very high order. If that happens, the 2012 electoral rhetoric would prove as different from “compassionate conservatism” and “hope and change,” as “stopping the spread of slavery” was from “narrowing the missile gap.”

Tags: Election 2012, Mitt Romney

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  • J__o__h__n

    The economy is the most important issue and to say that neither party knows how to fix it is nonsense. We need to fix it through more stimulus and then we can start to solve the long term debt and entitlements. Austerity hasn’t worked in Europe. And the Ryan budget isn’t fiscally responsible; it gives tax cuts to the rich.

  • info

    You describe the personal retirement accounts in a favorable light, despite the problematic reality that for most people they end up yielding less than defined benefits would, due in part to the high fees they charge. Such a system would however be profitable for investment firms, as was the case when we moved people out of pensions and into privately invested retirement savings. Whether or not you agreed with the old system or thought it sustainable, the changes were a sop to private industry. The new Health Insurance legislation has the same problem–rather than being about universal access to affordable health care, it’s about forcing people to buy a service from a company.

    You also try to put Ryan’s plans in a favorable light by constructing a straw-man against which to juxtapose it: “The Obama administration firmly supports the existing Social Security
    system, though it has not yet said how it will raise the money to pay
    for the system when it goes broke.” The fact that you would promote this myth that Social Security is about to go broke to bolster your argument demonstrates just how weak it is. Not to mention the fact that Obama is going out of his way to cut Medicare and SS, too, just to prove that he’s tougher than the Republicans.

    • AJB

      Aside from Krugman’s op-eds, what or who have you come across that claims that SS will remain viable absent any reform? That statement seems absurd, and this coming from a Democrat. (I should note that Krugman didn’t always think that SS would remain viable: in 1997 he described it as a Ponzi scheme.)

  • Roy Tucker

    The choice in this election is not between a “European” and an “American” approach to government, as Prof. Landy suggests, but between the existing American approach (itself a very long way from that of Europe) and the approach that prevailed in the United States before the New Deal. Back in 1929-31, US life expectancy at birth was 59 years, and many of those fortunate enough to survive to that age died in government poorhouses. A small minority of the population lived lives of fabulous wealth, building homes (and occasionally converting their private estates into national parks) that we still visit today. That is the world of Mitt Romney, and if the American people truly understand what is at stake in this election, he will lose in a landslide.

    On another point, I agree with Prof. Landy. The future of Social Security is not inevitable; it is a matter of the political choices that will be made by the American people this year and in the future. There is no reason why the richest country in the world has to have impoverished social programs – unless we choose to impoverish them by refusing to pay taxes for anything other than endless wars.

  • Pingback: Critics: Ryan’s controversial Social Security plan he doesn’t discuss – KETK | Personal Retirement Plans()

  • Atomicrob

    Once again, this article, like so many we’ve read the past few days, imbues Ryan with some sort of magical power to set us all on the correct course of action based on rational considerations. Implying this candidate is some sort of compass who singlehandedly has the ability to move us in the absolutely correct direction is a ridiculous premise. He is basically a handsome, friendly, yet extreme social conservative who has cast votes against women’s reproductive rights, marriage equality, DADT, ENDA and jobs bills. He votes the same as Michelle Bachmann, without the crazy rhetoric. Conservatives are always claiming the urgency of the current election demands our consideration of their candidate’s very wise and appropriate ideas. Ryan does not represent anything new, just more extremes in a less threatening package.

  • James

    Romney-Ryan will now be known as the ‘sincerity’ ticket.

  • TomC.

    Ryan brings his budget to the debate but Romney will have to sell it to the voters and be able to debate it with President Obama this fall. I am not too sure Romney can make that sale or not but it will be interesting to watch