“We’ve got two fundamentally different ideas about where we should take the country,” said President Obama at a recent campaign stop in Ohio. The statement was false in the sense he meant it, but true in another.
Despite its questionable facticity, Obama will be flogging this theme hard until November. The president hammered away at it some more later the same day, when he told a crowd there are “two fundamentally different visions about how we move the country forward. And the great thing about our democracy is you get to be the tiebreaker.”
Mitt Romney says much the same. As he declared after clinching the GOP nomination, he has “a very different vision” for America than the president does.
In politics, this is known as drawing distinctions. The speaker’s side—whichever one that happens to be—wants a healthy, prosperous America where happy people lead successful and fulfilling lives. This is why it must defeat the other side, which wants only to smash America behind the ear with a tire iron, drag her into a dark alley, rob her blind, stab her with a rusty knife, and leave her for dead. You just can’t entrust a great country like this to people like that.
Yet for all the distinction-drawing, the candidates’ visions often sound strikingly similar. Not long ago one of them said he wants “an America with a growing middle class, with rising standards of living, [with] children even more successful than their parents....This America is fundamentally fair....In the America I see, character and choices matter. And education, hard work, and living within our means are valued and rewarded.” And “poverty will be defeated,” and yadda yadda yadda. Can you tell which candidate said that? Of course not.
Granted, stump speeches are Nytol in gas form, focus-grouped until every last wisp of originality and daring has been thoroughly expunged. But what about the issues?
There, too the differences are more marginal than fundamental. Take foreign policy: Both Obama and Romney espouse the centrist approach of the diplomatic, academic, and think-tank establishment. They might differ in tone, but neither of them is going to embrace either the neoisolationism of the Pat Buchanan right or the disarmament pacifism of the radical left.
In fact, Obama’s approach to the war on terror sounds like something Dick Cheney would admire. As The New York Times noted in May, “Obama [has] preserved three major policies—rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention—that have been targets of human rights groups since the 2001 terrorist attacks.” He is using drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists from above—and counting any military-age male in the vicinity as a combatant, even if that male is merely herding sheep.
On the budget and taxes, Romney and Obama are—again—different mostly at the margins. And while those marginal differences can add up over time, neither candidate has proposed a sharp deviation from the current fiscal trajectory. On the few issues where they show genuine disagreement, such as abortion, they are largely constrained by constitutional limits.
As for health care, conservative pundit Tucker Carlson put it best: "There are only two people in world history who have signed individual mandates into law. One is the president, [and] the other’s the guy running against him." True, the next president might nominate one or more Supreme Court justices. If Romney does so, he could nominate a right-winger like Chief Justice John Roberts, who could overturn the individual mandate on...oops, never mind.
This is why, for all the talk of "fundamentally different ideas," Republicans obsess about Obama’s personal life. It’s why the Obama camp has spent so much time and effort on personal attacks: Romney won’t release all his tax records, Romney keeps money in offshore accounts, etc. It’s hard to crystallize policy distinctions when the positional differences are so blurry. (Those attacks have given rise to what should be the quote of the year: “Apparently I’m supposed to be more outraged by what Mitt Romney does with his money than what Barack Obama does with mine.”)
No, the real split is to be found not so much between the two big-government candidates themselves as in the electorate. And, as is so often the case, de Tocqueville explained it presciently. “Our contemporaries,” he wrote, “are incessantly tormented by two hostile passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free. Unable to destroy either the one or the other of these opposite instincts, they work hard to satisfy both at the same time. They imagine a unique, tutelary, omnipotent power, but elected by the citizens....They console themselves about being in tutelage by thinking that they have chosen their tutors themselves....In this system, the citizens emerge for a moment from dependency in order to indicate their master, and return to it.”
Or, as Woody Allen put it in "My Speech to the Graduates": "More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this column originally appeared.