According to a lasting view of American politics, the Big Conversation should be about the role of government in the economy: the extent to which government should be engaged in taxation, redistribution, risk management, and so on. And one of the recurrent complaints about the state of US politics is that the image consultants, spin doctors, distractions, etc., conspire to deprive voters of the opportunity to weigh in on that set of central questions.
By that criterion, I think this is among the most successful campaigns in recent history, at least so far (we’ll see what tomorrow’s debate brings). Sure, it’s far from perfect, but the questions that keep coming up are about fiscal fundamentals: the importance of, and strategies for managing, the deficit; the proper level, distribution, and structure of federal taxation; the role of the federal government in protecting citizens from fiscal risk such as through the collapse of the auto industry and the increasing costs of health care; even the appropriate treatment of capital/wealth vis-a-vis workers.
The 47% “gaffe” Romnney made is not actually a gaffe–it’s an honest assessment in which the candidate actually thinks the problem is that people not subject to federal income tax are moochers, as opposed to that they are on the losing end of growing income inequality and therefore not required to pay federal income tax. Paying too much tax if you’re Romney is disqualification from being President, but paying too much if you’re a low- to moderate-income worker or retiree is mooching. Similarly with the much-maligned line about environmentalism from Romney’s convention speech. It’s an honest statement of the values the candidate espouses: that private families are more important than public goods. Similarly with Paul Ryan’s budget: the biggest problem is not its lack of specificity but rather the values it implements.
The contrast with the Democratic convention couldn’t have been clearer. There the lines were about publicness: you don’t close the door behind you, you bring someone up after you, you’re not on your own. To be clear: in the watered-down American context, these really are claims about collectiveness, a concept that troubles many Republicans and certainly Libertarians. Not only does it not trouble me, but I’m delighted to see the party making an active, affirmative case for collective responsibility instead of hiding and apologizing for it.
Elections do have consequences, and if this election goes the way it seems to be headed, I think the Democrats can and should interpret it as a clear mandate for responsible, active government, since the conversation is focused on that central vision.