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.”