Only two have been transformational: the Kennedy-Johnson years changed American domestic life permanently and Ronald Reagan championed policies that were to install the wealthy as sovereign among the classes.
In the contest this year, those two broad sweeps of policy are in contention, Barack Obama as a devotee of the Kennedy-Johnson philosophy of helping the common man find a path to the middle class versus Mitt Romney, the Reagan disciple of the wealthy classes as guardians of the public treasure.
Democrats believe that if the Tea Party obstruction is removed they can restart the economy, repair our crumbling roads and bridges, start an Asian-style train system and use a portion of increased taxes to pay down the national debt.
On the other hand, the thoughtful conservative David Brooks writes, “This is the source of Republican extremism: the conviction that the governing model is obsolete. It needs replacing.”
The method for achieving fiscal and moral health chosen by over-the-moon, Tea Party conservatives is metaphorically similar to Medieval surgeons — keep cutting the patient to release the poison in his blood.
It would be wonderfully clarifying to have the voters choose by decisive margins which of the two policies will govern us for the coming decade or so.
Unfortunately, the numbers point to a close election, which means we’ll stumble along, the Tea Party holding Congress in a headlock, getting nothing done.
Unless … unless public disenchantment with the Tea Party turns to anger at the obstinate GOP minority holding its own leadership and the entire country in hostage to its narrow vision for the nation.
That vision is to give up on social programs and take our medicine like good Greeks or Irish. Austerity is good for you.
I’ll leave untangling the Greek situation to competent authorities, but the facts fall in Nobel economist Paul Krugman’s favor. He points out that the government has already shrunk.
He writes that “private-sector job growth has more or less matched the recovery from the last two recessions; the big difference is the unprecedented drop in public-sector jobs, which is now about 1.4 million less” than the average in the Bush years.
If we took our medicine as the Irish did, it would be the U.S. equivalent of losing 1.9 million teachers, police and firemen. Austerity did not bring recovery to Ireland, where the unemployment rate is 14 percent.
“Ireland’s experience shows that austerity in the face of a depressed economy is a terrible mistake to be avoided if possible,” according to Krugman.
Given an economic situation that seems to offer Obama only a choice between pain and more pain, is his defeat as much of a sure thing as Gov. Dewey’s was over Harry Truman in 1948?
Romney needn’t start writing his inaugural address quite yet. The country doesn’t really know him. His true beliefs are a mystery as he has taken positions on both sides of issues as governor of Massachusetts and presidential candidate.
Romney also is stuck with his endorsement of Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget, which calls for a 10 percentage-point reduction in taxes for the rich that would be paid for by a 66 percent reduction in spending for the old, the young, the poor and the sick.
The fall campaign will provide an opportunity for the cruelty of Ryan’s budget and for Romney’s revolving position on every side of every public controversy to be drilled into the public conscience, where moral and political judgments are made.
Further, although Obama’s own public approval is just short of 50 percent, more than 60 percent of the public disapproves of Congress. In addition, 28 percent strongly disapprove of the Tea Party while 46 percent have no opinion. That 46 percent is open to conversion.
It is hard to envision Obama replicating Truman’s whistle-stop campaign that assailed that “Do Nothing, No Good 80th Congress,” with crowds encouraging the embattled, down-to-earth president with shouts of “Give ’em Hell, Harry!”
But Obama can appeal to the majority that believes Bush was the author of our economic miseries. I can imagine a thousand crowds being exhorted, “Give me a Congress and we’ll end this Bush recession.”
Whether we have a clarifying election or not, it seems to me that it depends on how 46 percent of the voters regard the Tea Party — as patriots or a bit psycho.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.