Regular readers of the In Box know that I have plenty of appetite for — and fascination with — horse race stories. And for good reason, I think.
The complex textures of political campaigns, the money, the messages, and the candidates’ style on the stump all matter quite a lot, shaping the thinking of voters and the ultimate outcome of elections.
But in 2012, there is a significant risk that this kind of story will obscure the really revolutionary heft of this election cycle, a vote that could radically change the direction and fabric of our society.
Think that’s overblown?
Consider that the two most prominent Republican leaders of the moment, presidential candidate Mitt Romney and budget leader Paul Ryan, have put forward spending plans that would dramatically shrink the role of government in American life.
This isn’t hyperbole, or political jingoism. It is simply what the GOP is promising to do.
They have decided that the fundamental architecture of government, widely accepted since the late 1930s, should be dismantled and replaced with a model that more closely resembles the republic that existed prior to the New Deal.
In the past, journalists have assumed — correctly, I think — that much of this rhetoric was just that, election-year posturing.
From Ronald Reagan onward, the GOP has talked a solid conservative game and then cheerfully boosted spending, raised taxes, and expanded the national debt.
But the story this year is different. Republicans in the House have flirted almost casually with the idea of defaulting on America’s national debt.
They have stated clearly that fundamental programs serving poor Americans — unemployment insurance, Medicare, student loans, and so on — are on the chopping block.
Programs that Republicans from Eisenhower to Nixon to Reagan embraced are now decried as European-style “socialism.”
The GOP has also embraced unambiguously the idea that corporations and wealthy Americans (or “job creators” as the GOP has rebranded them) should pay far less to fund the services we still receive from the Federal government.
This is a radical departure in a society where progressive taxation has been a mainstay for generations, particularly at a time when the wealthy pay lower taxes than at any other time in the post-Second World War era.
Telling this story doesn’t mean scaring senior citizens about Social Security, or buying into Democratic talking points about student loan interest rates.
What it means is simply examining the GOP’s own plan, taking it seriously, and explaining to voters the kind of departure that conservative leaders envision from the way of life Americans have experienced since Franklin Roosevelt was in office.
That’s a big story and so far reporters haven’t tackled it.
I fear that this is also one of those stories where journalists will be tempted to reach for false equivalencies, or for some kind of artificial “balance.” But that’s just not factually accurate, not this year, not this election.
In fact, one of the big stories in 2012 is that Republicans and Democrats have essentially swapped roles in American society.
During the 1940s and again in the 1960s and ’70s, Democrats largely led the attack on the status quo, demanding huge changes in the way government operates.
The Democratic agenda was often pretty radical, spurred in significant measure by groups on the left who wanted swift, radical reforms.
But these days, Democrats — led by Barack Obama — have taken on the role of defenders of the status quo.
Their argument, boiled down to its essence, is that with a little tweaking and fiddling and belt-tightening, the Federal government that exists now works well enough, and has roughly the right amount of power and influence in our lives.
This is one of the reasons that President Obama’s “hope and change” message has lost so much luster in the eyes of his supporters. The truth is that Mr. Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, appears fairly satisfied with the system that now exists.
Even Obamacare, widely viewed as this president’s biggest and most controversial accomplishment, is hardly a radical departure from the kind of Medicare and Medicaid programs that have existed for decades.
It’s been widely documented that the individual mandate, requiring people to buy some form of health insurance, was originally a conservative idea, one that favored personal responsibility and relied on private companies for its success.
That’s not a very exciting story. As a consequence reporters are often tempted to buy into conservative talking points, that the Democratic agenda somehow represents a vast expansion of government power, or a new attack on free enterprise.
Journalists, economists, academics and even many right-of-center analysts who’ve examined those claims find that they are, bluntly, unsupported by fact.
The Obama White House has used powers that other presidents — including Republican presidents — have wielded for decades.
The point here — and this is important — isn’t that journalists should condemn the GOP’s agenda, or favor the Democratic vision.
Conservatives may, in fact, have formulated exactly the right agenda for the country, and their plan may be exactly what American voters want.
It may be that Americans will decide that the structure, powers and services of the Federal government, that have shaped so much of our society for so long, were a dangerous aberration, or are simply unaffordable, as many Republican leaders believe.
But my fear is that because of a lot of sloppy and lazy journalism, far too many voters will go to the polls next November not understanding the issues, or the stakes, or kind of future they’re deciding on.