I believe the Obama campaign is wasting its time with attacks on Mitt Romney. That doesn’t mean Team Obama will wise up; it has only a few tricks in its bag, and it deploys them over and over. But it does mean that the public is inured to the Obama shtick. There’s no there there, and increasingly, the people know it.
There’s something else about this election that tends to rob the trademark Obama demagoguery of its effect. A growing number of Americans perceive our nation to be at a turning point (or a precipice; choose your metaphor). If Romney were a more galvanizing candidate for conservative Republicans, there would be a greater tendency to associate him with the prospect of an American turn-around, on the order of the Reagan presidency.
But Romney is not the object of widespread enthusiasm. He comes across as a decent, accomplished man who wants to do the right thing, but he is perfectly comfortable with big government, and seems to have no philosophical underpinnings: certainly not conservative ones – constitutionalism, limited government, originalist philosophy – nor any of the kind that help meaningful policies weather the storms of political opposition.
Throughout the very competitive primary season, millions of voters were hoping intensely for someone else. Yet Romney didn’t tack to the right much during the primary season, and his “inevitability” has meant that he sees little reason to do so in the general campaign. He won’t be doing heavy lifting for small-government conservatism in the Oval Office.
His difference with Obama is more profound than merely a set of disputes over the precise content of big-government policy. Romney comes across as having a better character. He’s not steeped in cronyism, he doesn’t want to “Alinsky” his opponents – or Alinsky the middle class, for that matter – and he generally respects the people and the idea of their private property. Romney in the Oval Office would not be a predator, ideological or otherwise. But his idea of the proper role and scope of government is much closer to that of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and all the Democratic presidential candidates since 1964 – including, ultimately, Barack Obama – than that of Ronald Reagan. Romney’s a Massachusetts pol; a Republican in Massachusetts would be a Democrat in a good 35 of the other states.
Reagan, by contrast, was a defining leader, even philosopher, of the limited-government conservative movement. He did, in fact, do the heavy lifting for conservatism in Washington, DC. He didn’t get everything he wanted, and he didn’t satisfy conservatives on every point. But he was the person leading the charge, acting on a set of philosophical premises about the proper relationship of government to the people. His premises were opposed in important ways to the assumptions of the New Deal and the Great Society. Reagan, when he went to Washington, acted on the understanding that he had a mandate to literally reverse the encroachments of government on the people’s lives.
Conservatives in 2012 understand clearly that Mitt Romney will not do this. He has never said he will, and he has never spoken in philosophical terms that suggest he might. Electing Romney isn’t electing a champion of the American political idea. It’s a tactical move to get Obama out of office.
The period of the Obama tenure, and now the 2012 election, are forcing Americans to reconsider, in a way I’m not sure we have for a good 200 years, what the vote means, and what politics means to our lives. Since 1792, the sense has gradually crept upon us that when we elect a president, we are electing our collective future. That sense took a giant leap forward with the FDR presidency, and frankly, it took another one when Reagan entered office.
Some of the most important (although not necessarily good) legislation in the 20th century was actually passed under other presidents, like Wilson, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter. But FDR and Reagan were seen by their respective constituencies, in a way none of the other presidents in the last century was, as leaders who could steer our course decisively by using the power of the executive. An idea has spread in the public consciousness that electing a president is tantamount to electing a savior.