American political history is shaped, in large part, by the essentially non-ideological character of the national psyche. We are a practical people. We respond to politics as we do to technology, with a desire to fix it. While divisions between the parties have always been highlighted at campaign time, as soon as the election is over, the ideological divisions within Congress and between Congress and the White House have generally receded as our political leaders look for solutions. Only at a few key times – the Civil War, and the New Deal being the most obvious – was there a clear ideological division in which the political parties could not come to agreement because they were at odds over first principles, and in the case of the New Deal, the GOP eventually came around.
This year is shaping up as the most ideological campaign in decades. Ideology is not necessarily a bad thing. All of us operate on the basis of certain core principles, sometimes unrecognized. And, there are times when it is good for the political life of the nation to face the divergence over first principles rather than papering them over. I am not sure this is such a time: It seems to me that the looming deficit problems do not call for a wholesale overthrow of current governing models – recasting entitlements or eviscerating the tax code – so much as they call for sustained, common effort to restrain the cost of entitlement programs and improve the tax system. But, between now and November, it is not an altogether bad thing for the nation to debate the competing ideologies at the core of each party and give direction, by means of an electoral verdict, on which direction they want the nation to pursue.
What is fascinating is the way that ideology has required both parties to reverse decades of electoral practice on two key issues, Medicare and taxes. I have recalled previously a conversation I had with a Democratic strategist in the mid-90s. I suggested that there was a way to recast the debate over taxes in ways that would help Democrats. I have long thought that a modified flat tax – eliminating all breaks except those few which anyone can, at least in theory, avail themselves of, such as the home mortgage interest deduction and the charitable giving deduction - is the kind of proposal that should appeal to the Left. My friend explained that if voters walk into the voting booth thinking of themselves as taxpayers, they tended to vote Republican and if they walked into the voting booth thinking of themselves as workers, they tended to vote Democratic. This year, President Obama has turned that presumption on its head, hoping that by framing the issue as one about tax fairness, voters who think of themselves as taxpayers when they enter the voting booth will be more likely to back his re-election effort. Obama is helped in this effort to recast the debate over taxes from a loser for the Democrats to a winner by Mr. Romney’s ridiculous decision not to release more of his tax returns and by Romney’s many off-shore accounts.
Now, with the selection of Cong. Paul Ryan, the Republicans are attempting to do the same thing on Medicare: Take an issue that is usually a drag for them, and turn it into a bonanza. Americans love Medicare, and not just those who receive it. I am just back from two weeks with my Dad. We take turns paying for lunches and dinners. By the end of the month, I will pay the property tax bill on his house. But, I could no more figure out how to pay for his healthcare costs, and at age 84, those costs are considerable, than I could fly.
The Republicans are betting that they can take people’s understandable fear about the federal deficit and convert that into support for their efforts to turn Medicare into a different kind of program, from a guaranteed payment to a premium support system. As a general rule, I suspect people are always less worried about remote challenges like deficit spending than they are about near challenges like paying for your Dad’s health care. This is, no doubt, why Romney and Ryan insist that current beneficiaries and those over 55 would not be affected by the changes. But, their proposal points to a deep ideological divide: Are we Americans more likely to entrust our seniors’ health care costs to government or to the market? Democrats should not be sanguine about the choice. It is astonishing to me that the American people have so quickly restored the market to such luster, less than four years after the market caused the greatest economic downturn since the Depression. I would have thought that the term “market solutions” would be a cussword for at least a decade, but is isn’t. And, many, many Americans have a deep distrust of, and dislike for, government. Think of the jokes about the post office, although I confess I think the post office does a great job.
So, what is interesting this year is not only that the issues have been framed in more ideological terms, but those ideological predispositions have caused both parties to adopt a strategy that is quite different from previous years. Democrats are talking taxes. Republicans are talking entitlements. This is fascinating but also worrying. If the polls are to be believed, this could be a very close election and it is doubtful either candidate will emerge with much of a mandate. But, the danger of ideological elections is that the winner thinks that all his or her ideas have been endorsed. Make no mistake about it. If Obama wins, and you make more than $250,000 per year, your taxes are going up. And, if Romney wins, Medicare will be changed into a voucher program. Even if either man wins by only 51%, the fact that these debates are so central to the campaign will permit either candidate to claim a mandate.
There is one issue which has drawn considerable attention at least in the Catholic press that also strikes me as new to presidential campaigns, subsidiarity. This core tenet of Catholic social teaching should be debated more and more because it challenges both parties. Democrats really do have to ask themselves if federal programs, with all the bureaucracy they entail, are the best way to assist the poor or address a given social problem. On the other hand, Republicans cannot invoke subsidiarity as a cudgel to oppose federal programs without simultaneously devising local or state programs that help the poor or address socials programs. And, unfortunately, there are some states and localities that seem less interested than others in helping the poor. Additionally, the idea of subsidiarity also points to the need for Democrats and Republicans to think about the important role played by non-governmental, intermediate social actors, such as the Catholic Church and unions. The Democrats seem to want to constrict the ability of the Church to conduct its ministries without government rules that insult our beliefs, and Republicans simply want unions to go away. But, society as a whole benefits when intermediate social groups fulfill important roles, not just creating a buffer between the individual and the all-powerful state, but acknowledging diversity within society too.
It is difficult to put such large, first principles into a 30 second television spot. I do hope that interviewers – and those who will question the candidates during the debates – will not shy away from these deeper differences within the parties. There are fundamentally different ideas about the direction of the country at stake in this election and, frankly, there is some merit in the arguments made by both. Debating the nation’s future and making a decision about it, this is what democracy is all about. It may get heated. It may get ugly. But, at the end, there will be a decision.