At this point, Romney and Obama are running almost perfectly opposite campaigns. Romney can tell you exactly what he wants to do, but barely a word about how he’ll do it. Obama can’t describe what he wants to achieve, but he can tell you everything about how he’ll get it done. It’s a campaign without real policies against a campaign lacking a clear vision.
Klein asks: when did Obama lose ‘the vision thing’? He thinks Obama had it in 2008, but it’s worth considering the counter-hypothesis that it was lost long before. Free and Cantril documented loss of liberal mojo in their 1967 book, based on survey data from the 1964 election. ‘Americans are philosophical conservatives but operational liberals.’ If that’s how it goes in 2012, that just goes to show how it goes, for the past half century.
For the rest, I wrote this post already – in response to something Kevin Drum said last year, actually – so I’ll just link to that old post. I think holds up pretty well.
Romney/Ryan get a bottomless stack of Get Out Of Budget Nonsense Jail Free Cards because the 2 + 2 = 5 stuff resonates with – feeds into – a certain kind of utopian conservative fantasy. It’s aspirational, rugged individualism stuff. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all just stood on our own two feet! Since saying this sort of stuff amounts to signaling to the base ‘I’m one of you!’, it is easily discounted as rhetoric – because that is, in fact, what it is. This produces a kind of feedback loop. The more you use this stuff just to signal you’ve got the right attitude, the more it becomes noise for any other signaling purpose. You are no longer able to talk about the budget, because talking about the budget is just a proxy way of expressing a personal virtue ethics. By contrast, if Obama were to advocate expansions as radical as the cuts Romney/Ryan are advocating, everyone would take it seriously – literally. And well they should. Democrats would never advocate sweeping expansions unless they wanted them, and meant to try to get them. Because it’s not as though there are significant portions of the electorate who fantasize, vaguely, about the government being vastly vaster – but who would balk at any any attempt actually to do it – who can be pandered to, philosophically.
Making government bigger, for embiggening’s sake, is no one’s hazy dream of personal virtue; cutting the government, for cutting’s sake, is.
The last time I wrote this post, commenters complained that I was letting conservatives off too easily, implying that they didn’t really mean what they say. Certainly that’s not what I meant to imply, then or now. The effect of being able to say anything, and not be called on it – because people reasonably assume that you don’t mean it – is a steady drift in the direction of what you say, whether you mean it or not. Also, you get to hide what you really want to do in plain sight. Whatever President Romney (knock on wood, let’s hope not!) goes for – tax cuts for the wealthy, would be my guess – can be billed as moderate and reasonable, prudential retrenching of the purer philosophical vision he put forth while running for office.