With Governor Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, the vague contours of the presidential race have suddenly become sharper. Up until now, partly because Romney’s image has been so fuzzy, we were looking at a referendum on President Obama rather than a clear-cut contest between political philosophies. Now, given Ryan’s prominence as a budget hawk and entitlement reformer, the public has a choice to make.
On the one hand, President Obama and Vice President Biden stand foursquare for the growth of what I’ve been calling the blue social model. In terms of government policy, they want to continue to grow the mix of interventions, guarantees, entitlements and programs that FDR launched in the New Deal, that Lyndon Johnson extended in the Great Society, and that various presidents (of both parties — think of Nixon and the EPA and W and the prescription drug benefit) have extended since.
This is a bolder stance than the Clinton approach. Bill “the era of big government is over” Clinton was a small ‘c’ conservative: he aimed to conserve the bulk of the entitlement state by trimming a few of its less popular features like welfare payments not linked to work. President Obama, who succeeded at passing health care where Clinton failed, has bigger ambitions, and intends to press ahead with the characteristic direction of American politics in the last two thirds of the twentieth century — towards a more powerful, more purposeful and more intrusive federal state.
Beyond that, Obama and Biden will be running on the blue social model as a way of life. The mass production, mass consumption society of Fordist America saw stable employment at good wages for most people in the US. For Obama and Biden, that kind of America is what Frank Fukuyama called the end of history: a relatively egalitarian income distribution, a stable employment picture, defined benefit pension programs for more and more workers, a gradually rising standard of living, more kids spending more years in school from generation to generation and a government of Keynesian macro-economists who keep the economy on an even keel.
For the Obamians, this is the ideal form of society. The apparent creaks and strains of the last thirty years — rising income inequality, stagnating real wages, economic volatility — are the result of policy errors rather than historical forces. Bad, selfish people have dismantled the regulations and controls that kept a healthy middle class economy in place and like Toad of Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows, reckless rich nincompoops have driven the national economy — and the blue social model — into the ditch. President Obama’s goal is to bring back the good old days, and make them better yet. His methods are classic tools of the progressive movement of the twentieth century and he believes that there is much, much more than government can do to make our country richer and our society more just.
The Republican challengers will be attacking this vision head on. They will be arguing that the blue social model is driving us all into the poorhouse. The costs of the entitlement state are relentlessly escalating. Regulatory capture means that the federal agencies supposed to protect the public from the plutocracy end up serving the plutocracy: crony capitalism rather than enlightened public administration is what happens when the state becomes too powerful and too large. They will be arguing that the way out of our present economic stagnation is to unleash the powers of enterprise and competition.
To President Obama, this sounds like the worst kind of anti-FDR, anti-New Deal reactionary Republicanism — Taft rather than Eisenhower. When the President denounces tax cuts for the rich as “trickle down” economics and as the cause of our problems rather than solutions, he means it. Romney and Ryan, he will charge, want to take us back to the individualistic economics of the Roaring Twenties, policies that in his view were directly responsible for the Great Depression, just as their revival under George W. Bush brought on the Great Recession.
The President will have some strong arguments — and large constituencies, which are very much more useful — on his side. Americans don’t by and large like budget deficits very much, but they are quite fond of entitlement programs. Think of the 19th century, when populist pressure led the government to reduce the price of federal lands until the Homestead Act allowed any American who wanted one to get a free farm. Bad for the budget deficit — especially after the Civil War when the national debt reached astronomical levels — but that had little impact on the voting habits of Americans who wanted free land.
The incumbents will also have a solid majority of the chattering classes and the intelligentsia on their side. Intellectuals (and I suppose that also includes low lifes like bloggers) had a special role in the progressive state. Social scientists and credentialed experts were empowered on the basis of “objective research” to provide policy guidance for the state. The growing federal government hired a lot of white collar college graduates, and even today Washington DC and its suburbs are unusually rich and the median educational level there is unusually high. There will be no shortage of thumb-suckers and chin strokers backing up the president’s talking points and demolishing Romney’s.
There are other constituencies with a stake in the status quo. African-Americans benefit from both government hiring and government spending. There will be farmers who look at Paul Ryan as a possible enemy of the farm subsidies they love so well. There are a significant number of Wall Street interests linked to the state and municipal bond market, to the state pension funds, and to other economic interests that benefit from the entitlement state.
The selection of Paul Ryan unifies the many constituencies of the Democratic Party, and allows its standard bearers to run against what they will portray as a threat to middle class prosperity, economic fairness, racial minorities and both science and reason. On the Democratic side, this is going to be a corker of a campaign: all the tribes will march and all the flags will fly.
But if he unified and energized the Democrats with his pick, Romney also solved two of his own most serious problems. Picking Ryan answers some questions that so far Romney had not been able to address: Who is Mitt Romney and what does he stand for? The answer is that he is a business-oriented, pro-enterprise Republican who stands for limited government, budgetary discipline and entitlement reform. The more Democrats attack the choice of a “radical” running mate, the more they contribute to Romney’s rebranding. Indeed, the more widely Dems denounce Ryan as an extremist, they more they undercut the very telling line of attack that Romney is a man without convictions who will say and do anything to get elected. The more this looks like a gutsy, bold and ideological choice, the more Mitt Romney looks like a bold and principled leader rather than a flip flopping politician. More, as Michael Barone perceptively noted, Romney’s personal experience and skills at Bain involve the kind of numbers-crunching analysis that an election over the financial trajectory of the federal government will involve. Romney hasn’t wanted to talk about being governor of Massachusetts and most Americans don’t have a clear picture of what investment bankers do. That makes him Mr. Nobody from Nowhere — unless the election turns on issues where his experience in turnarounds and financial workouts becomes suddenly relevant.
The choice didn’t just define Romney; it energized the Republican base and did it in a way that works well for the ex-governor. Romney may be socially conservative, but because his personal views are rooted in a religious faith that many of the most zealous Republican social value voters deeply dislike, this connection can never make Republicans fall in love with him. Fiscal conservatism, on the other hand, offers fewer problems. It fits his life story and because he can point to business experience rather than Mormon roots as the ground for his views, he doesn’t turn the base off just when he wants to energize them.
And beyond that, whatever the problems of running against the entitlement state, the country is much more interested in fiscal conservatism than in social conservatism at the moment. A fiscal conservatism campaign has a better shot at independent voters in 2012 than a socially conservative one; the Ryan selection unites the Republican base on the ground most favorable to Romney from both a personal and a political point of view.
Electorally, there is one more way in which the Ryan selection looks smart. Unless the campaign goes very badly awry, Ryan is likely to strengthen the GOP ticket among Catholics and in the Midwest without weakening the GOP hold on the white southern and the Protestant vote. Ryan may not deliver Ohio or even Wisconsin, but his presence makes the ticket more competitive in the region from Iowa to Pennsylvania where the GOP has its biggest hopes for flipping some states.
2012 looks like an election between two united parties who will both be enthusiastic and both be convinced that the fate of the nation hangs on the November result. That’s a good thing, on the whole, for the country. Whatever else can be said about our electoral politics, nobody can argue that they are inconsequential or that real issues have disappeared. This is a serious election about important affairs and the two sides will both be offering a coherent vision of American values that allows voters to make a clear choice.
But if both parties are offering a clear vision of their values, I’m not yet sure that either party has what the voters want most. From the Democrats, they want some idea about how the entitlement state and the blue social model more broadly can actually be preserved. The fiscal trajectory does not look good; how exactly do Democrats plan to pay for all the programs they want to protect and extend?
From the GOP, they want something else. How is this new economy going to work? How will middle class Americans benefit from all these tax and spending cuts? What will the GOP put in place of Obamacare and the current entitlement program? Appeals to capitalist ideology and American exceptionalism are all very well and they will likely hold the GOP base together and deliver high turnout, but to win over swing voters, Romney and Ryan will likely have to come up with a little bit more in the way of showing how Americans can still get the benefits they most want and need from a shrinking and fiscally sustainable federal government.
Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan may or may not help him in the Electoral College. But the selection has made this a better election, clarifying the issues and giving the country something more consequential than attack ads and gaffes to think about. We will have to wait and see whether Governor Romney helped himself with this choice; he has, however, helped the country and that seems like a good start.