With our mania for beauty contests and preference for catchy bumper stickers, American elections are all too often scrubbed of substantive content. That may well explain in part why we live in a country with such a poorly informed electorate. Judging by the weeks since Mitt Romney secured the GOP nomination, 2012 seemed to be following the same tired script. That was particularly troublesome because down on the ground the country has been caught in a sometimes-vicious tug of war between opposing philosophical views that speak to the very nature of our democracy. So while the campaign talk ranges from glib to vague, we stand at a very real crossroad. The turn we take now may actually determine our road to the future.
I have long felt that, despite some surface similarities, the differences between our two major parties are significant. It did matter that Jack Kennedy became president in 1960 and that George W. Bush prevailed in 2000. Yes it’s often hard to differentiate been Democratic and Republican administrations in foreign policy. Regardless who sits in the White House, we’re still the same superpower that must react somewhat consistently to events and situations largely out of our control. On the domestic side however, the place where we actually live, the divide has been getting larger the differences more transparent. Here we are in control. Different policy can and does make a difference.
It is in that context that I think Mitt Romney has made an excellent running mate choice. In a sense the chameleon of American politics has decided to run on a clearly articulated and documented philosophy. Perhaps it’s emblematic of his candidacy that from here on in he will be running on someone else’s (yet another) record. Think of that what you may, but Paul Ryan’s record puts the right-left divide into sharp campaign relief, much sharper than was the case just two days ago. And that’s a really good thing.
It has long been said that budgets are where the philosophical rubber hits the road. It’s not what we say, but how we gather and then allocate our resources. Budgets ultimately boil down to what we’re spending and what we’re cutting. As such they remain the best reflection of our national and local priorities. Ryan’s budget (and everyone calls it that because he is its principal author) isn’t some vague pronouncement but is concrete — hard fast numbers embedded in a bill passed by the Republican dominated House. Romney now has a record driven by a clear ideology behind which he must stand and which he must defend. He has made a choice and that’s exactly what we will have to do.
Some partisans will rush to say that Romney committed political suicide on Friday. Not so fast. Vice Presidential choices have rarely decided elections one way or another. Whatever strengths are bringing Romney the nomination might get him to the presidency. Ryan may have views with which you or I might disagree, but he is a fresh and youthful face who will now be paired against a much older and established counterpart. If Vice Presidents stand as symbols for the future that could be meaningful, though perhaps not with a 51-year-old President in good health leading the ticket. We don’t know how Ryan will perform on this much larger national stage or how the Romney-Ryan combo will stand up against Obama-Biden. Elections aren’t over until they’re over, and one should be wary about suicide predictions. The last time was when G.H.W. Bush named his Veep choice. Remember President Bush and Vice President Quayle?
Ryan is an excellent choice because it might force both campaigns to engage seriously on their philosophical differences and where the country should be headed. How, who and at what level should citizens be taxed? What kind of safety net should a great democracy provide for its citizens? What are our priorities say for example between education and armaments? What is the government’s responsibility, and through it the citizen’s responsibility, for things we all use like our infrastructure? How should the government intersect with our private lives and how separated should church and state be?
Even with a more ideologically defined race, don’t expect all of these issues to be addressed, certainly not with total clarity. After all this is America where those who speak seriously about issues are branded wonks and nerds. But perhaps we can look forward to something more this time around.
Regardless as to how the next months will play out, we Americans are faced with a clear choice this election cycle. We deserve to understand not only the issues facing us but that we are in fact making a defining choice when casting our ballots. Mitt Romney may not have given us much until this point, but hopefully his excellent choice will make us all stand up and take notice — give us greater reason to vote for or against him in November. For me, if anything, voting against him and for Barack Obama is even more of a no-brainer.