A week from today we’ll likely know the winner of the presidential race, which both campaigns have called the most important election of our lifetimes.
That seems a little arrogant. Sure, the election is significant, but it’s hard to believe it’s more important than, say, 1980 or 1992 or 2000. All presidential elections are important.
What does seem true is the election presents voters with their clearest choice in many years.
Not on specific policies. Both candidates have done their usual good job of muddying the water on taxes, spending, foreign policy, immigration reform, defense spending. The best line comes from Time columnist Joe Klein, who’s written that Mitt Romney’s plans are ridiculous and Barack Obama’s are non-existent.
But the overall philosophies of the two candidates and their parties are sharply, distinctly different, as cleanly divided as I’ve ever seen in 35 years of covering politics.
Republicans focus on business, individual responsibility and liberty. Democrats focus on labor, community and progress. Those goals don’t have to be mutually exclusive — you can love libertyand
progress, for example — but partisans don’t seem to get that. It’s almost as if Republicans and Democrats in 2012 live in different worlds.
It’s also comforting to remember that Americans have fought it out on this front for more than two centuries. Are we a Jeffersonian democracy of small-enterprise, family-centered individuals and loosely associated states? Or are we Hamiltonians, members of a strong and centrally organized federation that can intervene in the economy to help favored industries and individuals?
We’ve never really answered that question, at least on a permanent basis. The pendulum has swung from the gritty determination of the western pioneers to the oligarchies of the railroad, petroleum and steel barons to the progressive, security-oriented impulses of the Great Depression. We’ve argued over states’ rights, prejudice, ignorance, sickness and defending freedom, here and overseas.
Americans have long battled — literally, shed blood — over how to best promote the general welfare, as the Constitution promises.
This year, the pendulum swings again.
Perhaps, though, as we all cast our ballots, we’ll remember that America seems to work best when the tension between individual rights and community responsibilities settles into a rough balance. We often argue at the extremes, but we seem to do best in the middle — the messy middle where most of us actually live our lives.
Let’s hope politicians remember that on Nov. 7. If so, the 2012 election could actually be the most important of our lifetimes.