The Democratic Party this week displayed an unusual confidence in its values — an ideal of equal opportunity and sacrifice — that provided a fitting rebuttal to the views expressed by the Republicans last week.
GOP leaders had arranged their convention in Tampa around the conviction that individual enterprise, as embodied in the phrase “I built it,” is the only true path to prosperity. In contrast, President Obama’s acceptance speech, which touched on many issues, only soared when he got to his notion of citizenship: “the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.” Along the way, he showed how fully he now inhabits the office of president, paying tribute to fallen heroes and attesting to the goodness of average Americans. But like Republican nominee Mitt Romney, he didn’t offer a compelling game plan for how to achieve those ideals, especially in the face of the deadlock in Congress.
The reality buried in both men’s arguments is that voters themselves can provide a path forward. In a clear clash of values and visions, the winner will be able to claim a mandate that will almost certainly compel action by Congress, whichever party controls the two chambers. That’s the welcome result of a convention season that put on display two parties that know what they believe.
Unlike some presidential reelections, which amount to a reward for a finished job, this one will determine the shape of US economic strategy for the next few years. Obama’s “balanced” approach to the nation’s fiscal problems, combining adjustments to entitlement programs and higher taxes on incomes above $250,000, can’t be enacted by the president alone. Neither can Romney’s promise of further tax cuts and unspecified spending reductions. But the election of either one would create the mandate necessary to force a compromise through the House and Senate.
At times, both presidential candidates seemed reluctant to engage in a battle of specifics. Romney seemed to hope that voters turn to him just because Obama hasn’t produced a bipartisan deal so far. Obama barely alluded to his battles with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where scores of members have taken a no-new-taxes pledge.
In fact, a plea for compromise is written into the legislative calendar. When the last round of talks broke up, the two sides agreed to automatic budget cuts at the end of this year, when the Bush tax cuts also are due to expire. Neither party wants this to come to pass. The contours of the resulting deal will be determined by which party’s values prevail in November.