In heated elections like this one,
there is a tendency in the U.S. to characterize the arguments
between the two candidates as much more momentous — world-
historical, even — than they actually are.
It’s exciting to be the party of free enterprise battling
the forces of socialism. It’s flattering to think of yourself as
a patriotic American running against a cosmopolitan
internationalist. It’s useful to convince your donors that you
believe in businessmen like them while your opponent believes
only in government.
Conversely, it’s kind of boring to think of yourself as
having a set of technocratic disagreements with the opposition.
Yet, for the most part, that’s what this U.S. presidential
election is about.
One of this year’s more amusing “Ideological Battle of the
Century!” poses was recently adopted by Mitt Romney, the
“There’s a tape that came out just a couple of days ago
where the president said yes he believes in redistribution,” he
said. “I don’t.”
Romney supports Medicare and Medicaid, as well as food
stamps, Social Security and welfare. As governor of
Massachusetts, he passed a health-care-reform law that
subsidized insurance coverage for his state’s poor.
Romney, in other words, fully believes in redistribution.
He just prefers a bit less of it than President Barack Obama.
Saying otherwise might sound “severely conservative,” but it’s
not actually true.
A similar dynamic is evident on taxes. Obama’s budget
proposes raising taxes to equal 19.8 percent of gross domestic
product by 2022, a share of the economy that’s closer to tax
policy under the last Republican administration than the last
Democratic administration. Obama would keep most of the Bush tax
cuts. Romney, by contrast, says he wants taxes at 18.75 percent
of GDP by 2022. There is a genuine question about whether that’s
achievable given the rate cuts Romney has proposed, but in
theory, at least, the difference between the two candidates is
about a percentage point of GDP annually.
Over time, that’s a difference of trillions of dollars. In
terms of the kinds of support the government can provide to the
elderly and the poor, and the kind of military we can afford, it
matters. It doesn’t, however raise huge philosophical questions.
And after negotiations with Congress and the inevitable
reckoning between Romney’s plan and political and fiscal
reality, the two plans would probably end up even closer.
This year’s campaign did present a few opportunities for
ideological cleavage. Take health care. Although Obama’s plan is
based on Romney’s reforms in Massachusetts, Republicans loathe
it. Romney had an opening to endorse what many conservatives
truly believe: It’s simply not the government’s role to help
Americans gain access to health care. But Romney has never said
anything of the kind. Instead, he has framed his opposition to
Obama’s plan as a technocratic disagreement over whether you get
better health outcomes through federal or state policies.
The government’s role in job creation offered a similar
opportunity for a decisive philosophical break. Democrats and
Republicans have long thought that the federal government can —
and during recessions should — create jobs through direct
spending and tax cuts. Since the 2008 financial crisis, however,
Republicans have increasingly questioned the logic and
legitimacy of such Keynesian stimulus. On the stump, Romney has
echoed that view. “Government doesn’t create jobs,” he said.
“It’s the private sector that creates jobs.”
But when asked if he would balance the budget in his first
year as president, Romney gave an answer worthy of John Maynard Keynes himself.
“If you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the
first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5
percent,” he told Time magazine. “That is by definition
throwing us into recession or depression. So I’m not going to do
that.” Similarly, he criticized Obama’s defense cuts in an ad
saying reduced Pentagon spending would “eliminate hundreds of
thousands of jobs.”
Across the aisle, Obama continues to support additional
stimulus, but his campaign has been emphasizing a package of tax
increases and spending cuts to reduce deficits — not stimulus
plans. So the campaigns don’t disagree about whether government
spending can create jobs or about whether we should be pivoting
to deficit reduction.
On financial regulation, the Obama administration and the
Romney campaign have both resisted calls for root-and-branch
reforms such as breaking up large banks. Instead, Obama signed
the ameliorant Dodd-Frank Act. Although Romney opposes Dodd-
Frank, he has been vague about his objections to the law and
emphatic in support of broadly similar regulations.
Even the single largest policy difference between the two
candidates — Romney’s proposed cuts to low-income programs like
Medicaid — is fundamentally a technocratic argument. Romney and
his team contend that giving states control of Medicaid would
produce huge savings and better care. The Obama administration
(and most policy experts) is skeptical on both counts. Here
again, the argument being made isn’t about whether we care for
the poor, it’s about how we do it.
I don’t mean to play down the very real differences between
the two campaigns. How much we spend, what we spend it on and
who pays for it are all very consequential. But American
politics operate atop a fairly firm and broad understanding
about the proper scope of the state. Partisanship often obscures
that fact, in part because the party out of power has reason to
exaggerate disagreements with the governing party. Yet behind
the boisterous partisan stage is a quieter arena where broad
consensus reigns. Whether it’s a good consensus is, of course,