One nation, two camps: The most ideological election in years

The battle lines of the 2012 election will be the most sharply ideological in at least a generation.

President Obama and his Republican opponent will present vastly different visions of the role of government, how an economy best prospers and, still more fundamentally, what kind of nation the United States should be.

Divisions between the parties on these scores are nothing new. But they have grown deeper and more central to the political debate for many reasons.

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The Great Recession, the growing perception among Americans of all groups that the nation is on the wrong track and the fear that the long-revered middle class is shrinking [see The Hill Poll, page 1] are all factors.

So are the wounds suffered and inflicted in pitched battles over Obama’s healthcare reform law and economic stimulus packages, and the emergence of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama laid out her vision of America in a speech in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: “Will we honor that fundamental American belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, and if one of us is hurting, we’re all hurting?” she asked rhetorically. “Who are we? That’s what this election is about.”

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) presented the countervailing argument, also last week, in an address at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

He complained that people like Obama bought into “the moral basis of class warfare — a false morality that con- fuses fairness with redistribution, and promotes class envy instead of social mobility.”

The arguments are couched in agree- able terms but the values they reflect are probably irreconcilable.

“Tax policy, redistribution, regulation: these are all things that members of Congress have been fighting about for the past 30 years, but they are going to really flow out into the next election,” Nolan McCarty, a Princeton politics professor, told The Hill. “It will really be the first election since the 1930s in which there has been such a focus on economic divisions and the role of the state.”

Observers of all political stripes say today’s voter engagement on core economic issues is almost unprecedented. “In the 1990s, there was an increasing gap between the rich and everyone else, but it was not a big issue because almost everyone seemed to be doing well,” said Michael Linden, director for tax and budget policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “Issues like inequality, stagnating wages and a middle class being squeezed [are] now very tangible.”

Conservative activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, asserted that the power of these issues to affect unaffiliated voters, in particular, would be central to the outcome of the next election.

“What matters to [uncommitted voters] is what excites them. In 2006 and 2008, by about a 60-40 margin they didn’t like the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and they voted ‘against Bush,’ about Iraq in particular.

“All of a sudden, Obama gets in and decides to spend all this money and they flip again, against the Democrats. And people say, ‘Oh, they’re confused!’ They’re not confused. First they were worried about endless war and empire. Now they’re worried about spending too much and bankrupting the country.”

If the electorate is more attuned to differences in economic and political philosophy than it has been in previous years, the parties themselves have also made those differences more distinct.

Bill Lacy, director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, worked at high levels of several Republican presidential campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s. He believes one has to go back to 1984, the battle between then-President Ronald Reagan and Democratic nominee Walter Mondale (whom Lacy termed “a progressive in the classic tradition”), to see such well- defined divergences.

Bill Clinton “very clearly viewed himself as more of a New Democrat, a centrist,” said Lacy. In the 1996 campaign, on which Lacy worked as a strategist for Republican nominee Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.), “the whole philosophical distinction was really lost,” he added.

There seems no danger of the distinction being obscure in 2012. After all, Obama’s two signature initiatives, healthcare reform and the 2009 economic stimulus, both displayed a faith in the federal government as the best means to solve big problems. For that reason, they were met by near-mono- lithic opposition from Republicans.

More recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement may not have been fully em- braced by Democrats, but it has nonetheless placed issues such as income disparity at the forefront of the national debate in a new way.

McCarty argued that the Occupy movement “has given the Democrats a template for how the issue of inequality could be used in a campaign commercial. The idea of the 99 percent is very powerful.”

The Tea Party has also helped heighten the distinction on the GOP side of the partisan divide, favoring Republicans who articulate a particularly fervent brand of fiscal conservatism and punish- ing those who prefer to go along and get along with the ways of Washington.

“There had always been a Fifth Column in the Republican Party of appropriators, people who just wanted to spend money,” said Grover Norquist. Pressure from the grassroots, he added, had “run over — like with a steamroller! — the appropriators” and pulled those who remained back into “Reagan Republican” orthodoxy.

Much of politics is about the relative merits of freedom and equality. But usually, those perhaps irreconcilable goals are obscured by passions of the moment. Not so today. The usual distractions have been scraped away. The core issues lie exposed as they rarely are.

In November 2012, Americans in the lingering grip of the worst recession since the Great Depression, and living in a nation facing many serious challenges, will be asked to choose between vastly different philosophies, between which there is little common ground.

Politicians always say the next election could be “the most important of our lifetime.”

Whether or not that is true this time, November 2012 offers the starkest of choices.