Many Democrats turned away from the Republican convention both incredulous and optimistic. As one put it: “How do these guys think they can win with a such an out-of-touch hard right platform?”
The answer is, they don’t.
History tells us that when presidents lose their re-election, it is not because voters love the challenger or care much about his platform. It is because the incumbent hasn’t delivered on jobs. Think: Hoover, Carter, George Bush I. When Ronald Reagan turned to the TV audience during his 1980 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter and asked, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” the election was over.
As it was in 1980, the answer today is “no.” So, despite his lack of any coherent plan, voters favor Romney, the successful businessman, on the issue of managing the economy. The race is neck and neck largely because Romney’s pandering to the right has made voters fearful that he will weaken Medicare, Social Security and other protections people need even more in hard times. The press reports that the Obama campaign now intends to make Medicare the central issue.
Therefore, over the next two months, the time when the independents and swing voters make up their minds, we can expect that Republicans will keep the sharp knives of the radical right—reflected in Paul Ryan’s proposals for draconian budget cuts—under wraps. Romney’s handlers will now present him as a practical businessman, liberal enough to have been governor of Massachusetts and therefore trustworthy on protecting the middle-class safety net. Ryan is on board for the scam. And so is the Tea Party mob.
Ryan’s speech at the convention gave us a preview. He lavished praise on Medicare, claiming to be especially grateful for the help it provided to his sick mother and grandmother. “Medicare is a promise, ” he said solemnly, “and we will honor it.”
The convention erupted with a standing ovation.
Wait a minute! These were supposed to be Ayn Rand conservatives dripping with contempt for big government programs. And Ryan’s own budget was inspired by Grover Norquist, whose unabashed goal is to shrink government to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub. Hard to think of a program more representative of liberal big government than Medicare—a creature of the despised Great Society no less.
In effect, although you couldn’t see it, Ryan’s praise of Medicare came with a wink. Don’t worry, it said to his fellow conservatives; you know that when I say “honoring” Medicare, I mean turning it into a voucher program and drowning it in the bathtub.
What that moment told us was that the far right is now confident that it will run a Romney administration. Their cheers meant that the Romney-Ryan ticket has their permission to say whatever it takes to win.
Their confidence is well taken. Moderates have now been systematically eliminated from virtually every nook and cranny of the Republican power structure. So, whatever Mitt Romney’s inner political convictions—if there are any—his government will be staffed by ultra-conservatives dedicated to imposing 19th century social and economic values on a 21st century America.
Democrats assume that the public is on to them, and that the GOP will sink under the weight of its reactionary social platform. Maybe. But the Republicans have a huge advantage in super-PAC money to give credibility to Romney and Ryan, who will both be cross-dressing as compassionate conservatives. And if the polls are accurate, jobs and economic growth are more important issues for swing vote independents than Medicare.
It is too late for President Obama to change the economic record of the last four years. So if the election is a referendum on the recent past, he is in deep trouble. What he needs to do is make it a referendum on the future, to contrast where he wants to lead the people with where Romney will take them.
In a modern economy, government is an essential instrument for shaping the future. So in order to make this an election about tomorrow, Obama has to confront Romney on the issue of government’s role in the economy. For too long, Democrats have remained mute in the face of mindless Republican attacks on domestic government. The attacks of course are hypocritical – Republican economic policies have been riddled with government subsidies and interventions on behalf of business interests. The attacks are also stupid. A prosperous 21st century capitalist economy is impossible without a substantial involvement of the public sector to mitigate the human costs of competition and shape the future with investments in infrastructure, education and technology.
The question is not government’s size. This is a big country with big problems. We are not going to overcome them with a government the size of Costa Rica’s. The question is whose side the government is on?
On occasion, Obama seems willing to take on this issue. In a speech in Roanoke, Va., this July, he made the point that no one in America succeeds entirely on their own. “There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges…”
He then misspoke: “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build it, someone else made that happen.” Republicans jumped on this to claim he was anti-business. Intimidated, the president backed off, and has largely abandoned the issue since.
The president needs to go back to it and use it to remind Americans that it was the lack of government regulation of Wall Street that was responsible for our present economic agony.
Obama cannot compete with Romney on the issue of who knows more about how to make business profitable for investors. But he can demonstrate that he knows more about how to make an economy prosperous for its people. He needs to remind voters that the U.S Constitution starts with “we,” not “me” the people. And that the lesson of the crash of 2008 is that if we return the economy to the same people that drove it off the cliff, they will do it again.