To listen to the candidates, the 2012 election is an epochal clash between irreconcilable worldviews. It is the Alliance against the Empire, the elves versus the orcs, the forces of capitalism battling the forces of compassion.

They’re right about one thing: The 2012 election matters. A lot. The winning party will probably reap long-term political benefits from holding office during an economic recovery. As for the ideological showdown of the century stuff? It’s overblown. The two likely presidential nominees would, if elected, pursue very different economic philosophies and domestic policies. But not nearly as different as they would have you believe.

“President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial,” Mitt Romney says. But fear not, because the former governor of Massachusetts “will offer the American ideals of economic freedom a clear and unapologetic defense.”

Romney makes it sound as if he’s running against Vladimir Lenin. But what has Barack Obama actually done or proposed to do? He continued the Bush administration’s rescue of the financial system and auto industry. He passed a health-care law modeled on reforms Romney passed in Massachusetts. He passed a financial-regulation bill that erected a protective scaffolding around the banking system, but shied away from fundamentally reshaping it. He wants to extend most, but not all, of the Bush tax cuts. He has insisted that deficit reduction include some tax increases, though he has signaled he is willing to accept as many as three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar in increased taxes. He wants to raise the effective tax rates of people making more than a million dollars annually. He wants to invest in infrastructure.

Far From Radical

You can disagree with this list without pretending it is radical or somehow inimical to free enterprise. Obama has pursued an ambitious, center-left agenda. Capitalism will survive his efforts to use market-based means to accomplish traditional liberal ends.

Obama’s rhetoric toward the Republicans is less overheated, but still a bit confusing. In his speech in December in Osawatomie, Kansas, he railed against those who “want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess,” policies that “stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years.” Republican philosophy, Obama said, comes down to this: “We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.” Yet the president frequently remarks that the policies he favors have, in recent decades, enjoyed bipartisan support. That doesn’t easily square with the notion that Republicans are rigidly laissez faire and anti-middle class. Much of what’s gone wrong in recent years, and some of what’s gone right, bears the fingerprints of both parties, and thus both parties’ philosophies.

Financial deregulation was a bipartisan affair, and the White House intends to make 80 percent of George W. Bush’s tax cuts permanent. The health-care bill, as mentioned above, has its roots in a slew of proposals Republicans pushed through in the 1990s and after, and even Romney insists that “greater transparency for inter-bank relationships, enhanced capital requirements, and provisions to address new forms of complex financial transactions are all necessary elements of effective financial reform.”

Status Quo Ante

In addition, there is plenty of legislation passed or proposed in the Bush years that the Obama administration would like to build on or go back to. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, which was signed by President Bush, was gutted by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, not by Republican legislation. Much of the administration’s campaign- finance reform agenda simply consists of restoring that status quo ante. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to mend, not end, Bush’s signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind. Obama’s Affordable Care Act strengthened Bush’s Medicare Part D. And the president’s request, delivered in the State of the Union, for the Senate to pass new rules ensuring a swift up- or-down vote for executive-branch nominations echoes Bush’s effort to end the judicial filibuster.

This is not an attempt to extend the foolish critique that there is no difference between the two parties or the two likely presidential nominees. It matters that Obama’s proposed tax cuts amount to $3 trillion and benefit taxpayers making less than $250,000 while Romney’s would cost more than $6 trillion and are tilted toward the top 1 percent. It matters that Obama would implement the Affordable Care Act and Romney would try to repeal it. It matters that Obama is inclined to strengthen the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while Republicans want to weaken it.

But the 2012 election is not an epochal clash of irreconcilable worldviews. Judging from their respective records, Obama and Romney would have little trouble coming to agreement if locked in a room together. That’s a very different conclusion than you would draw from listening to their rhetoric, which implies a Thunderdomish battle to the death.

That’s true more broadly, too. The two parties are much further apart politically than they are philosophically. If you look closely at the policies both Democrats and Republicans propose when in power, there are ample opportunities for compromise and agreement. But elections are zero-sum affairs, and the one question on which there is no overlap between the two parties is which side should take power in November. The reason politics feels so polarized is that the resolution of that one, irreconcilable question ends up governing the parties’ approach to all other questions.

Reality Behind Rhetoric

Which helps explain both the reality behind, and the reasons for, the apocalyptic rhetoric. In their effort to isolate Obama and deny him the bipartisan cooperation that would assure him a successful presidency, Republicans have moved much further right, and found themselves committed to a strategy that requires them to intellectually justify why they can’t ever, under any circumstances, work cooperatively with the president. That’s made them act as if their philosophical differences with Obama are greater than they actually are, and it’s made Democrats believe Republicans are more extreme than their record suggests. But if Republicans win in 2012, they’ll move toward the center, and Democrats, no longer burdened by the responsibilities of governing and suddenly desperate to retake power, will move to the left.

If anything is truly on trial in 2012, it is not free enterprise, which is firmly supported on both sides of the aisle, or even the social safety net, which isn’t going anywhere. It’s a political system where you win elections by denying areas of ideological agreement and refusing to participate in cooperative governance. Unfortunately, it’s likely, as in most elections, to get off scot-free, only to reoffend in a couple of years.

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