Those of us who write about elections tend to treat each new one as path-breaking. Finally, we tell ourselves, this time there will be an explicit choice between two different understandings of American purpose. Then the election happens, politics returns to normal, and not much changes.
But this time—2012—I really believe it. Though President Barack Obama is a cautious politician, temperamentally unsuited to laying out a strong ideological vision, this year he faces a Republican Party that seems set on forcing him to do just that. In the past we have had Republicans who have been either extremist or unified, but never before have we seen a Republican Party that is both extremist and unified at the same time. When the Republicans unanimously adopt a budget proposal as radical as the one submitted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Obama—post-partisan though he may have wished to be—has little choice but to respond by characterizing it as “Social Darwinism” and laying out a vision of a fairer society as an alternative. There is the choice, and it is a stark one.
Extremism and unity together, it must be noted, offer certain political advantages. A party that adheres to both will stake out clear positions and appeal to voters seeking certainty; it will also be in a better bargaining position, especially when the other party is less united. Yet the combination is dangerous as well. We know, for example, that extremism fuels intolerance; and in the persistent questions about Obama’s citizenship or religion we have already seen the ugly side of intolerance. Another danger of extremism is equally worrisome. The extremist tends to live in a closed-information world, reading news designed to confirm already well-formed views, talking only to like-minded friends, and convincing himself that nothing outside his bubble can be trusted. I believe this closed-information system has allowed the Republican Party to create an entirely fictitious reality that bears no relationship to facts in the real world—and then to pretend that this fictitious creation is the only one that matters.
Although it may not play a major role in the 2012 campaign, foreign policy is the arena of public life in which the Republican divorce from reality is most obvious. Though Mitt Romney has little foreign-policy experience, he has not hesitated to blast Democrats for weakness in defending American interests abroad, while praising Republican strength. But the major foreign-policy challenges we face today involve economics, energy, and the environment. Saber rattling against China is not much help, nor is firmness toward the Muslim Brotherhood. Strength abroad requires far more than simply throwing more money at the Department of Defense. But years in opposition have taught the Republican Party that they need not make plausible suggestions of their own. The criticism they offer is pure rhetoric; it never addresses any particular problem and what might be done to combat it.
Much the same refusal to take governance seriously characterizes the magical thinking prevalent on the domestic side of the Republican ledger. Ever since its passage, Republicans have talked about repealing the Affordable Care Act. No efforts at replacement have been proposed, however; and should the Supreme Court strike down the law, Republicans will have nothing to say about how to fill the huge gaps in insurance coverage that will result. This is a problem everyone knows will have to be dealt with. But since dealing with it inevitably means raising taxes, creating a new program, or offending powerful contributors, it is hard to see how the Republicans will ever address it. The fiction that we have the best health-care system in the world will easily trump the reality that much remains to be done.
On the subject of the economy, Obama has finally learned—to his chagrin—that Republicans are not just bargaining when they oppose new taxes. The Ryan budget announces that opposition to tax increases is not about closing the deficit; it is about the core conservative commitment to lowering taxation of the wealthy. Political scientists once taught that social issues such as abortion were difficult for democracy to solve because of the absolutist character of the views held by opposing sides. One would think that economics, by contrast—being about money—could be amenable to a bit of horse-trading. But extremism and unity on the Republican side have changed the formula, and these days the idea of compromise on economic issues such as taxes or the deficit is considered heresy. Reality says that we should look at the state of society, decide what needs to be done, and find a way to pay for it. Fantasy says we should never raise taxes on the rich—and the problems will solve themselves.
Much ink has been spilled on the question of whether Obama is a liberal or a moderate. Many of his supporters have criticized him for his tepid defense of gay rights or his continuation of Bush’s restrictions on civil liberties. I confess to certain disappointments in this regard myself; I thought the Obama victory in 2008 would usher in a new era of liberalism comparable to the eras of FDR and LBJ, and it has not. In certain key areas, Obama’s misguided conviction that he would find areas of cooperation with the other party has limited his ambitions and thus his accomplishments.
In the long run, however, even those disappointed with Obama’s failure to advance liberalism may find themselves grateful for his cautious approach. Yes, the president made a serious miscalculation by giving so much rope to Republicans who were never going to meet him even one-tenth of the way. But by throwing the rope back to him, Republicans have given him a chance to run in 2012 as an eminently practical problem-solver. If Obama wins—and at this point, the odds are in his favor—his victory might help take the United States off the path, begun under Ronald Reagan, of simply assuming that a people as good as Americans can wish their way to a better future.
We now have a chance to recall that the world we live in contains realities that simply cannot be wished away. That might be the single best outcome of an Obama reelection. I agree with those who argue that in 2012 Americans will be making a choice, between different visions of government, that will shape the course of our society for decades to come. But I also think there is another, far more important choice, one implicit in the differing ways our two parties have responded to events in recent years. The choice this year is not finally between conservativism and liberalism, but between fantasy and reality.
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