After four debates, billions of dollars in overwrought advertising and two years of campaigning sadly deficient in intellectual integrity, we have a better understanding of three things:
• The literal truth beneath the satire of the post-2008 election headline by the Onion: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.”
• Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will not – because they cannot – tell us, beyond constantly shifting political slogans, how they would do the nation’s worst job better than Barack Obama.
• This election is about fundamentally different ideas of the appropriate balance between our obligations to each other – that is to community – and our jealously guarded reverence for individuality.
For two and a third centuries, America has mostly prospered, materially and spiritually, because we have respected the value of a rough balance between community and individuality, equally worthy aspirations.
We also know that if Obama were re-elected, the current rough balance would likely continue. That’s because even if Obama wished to tilt the balance more toward mutual obligations (and there’s no evidence that he does), he would not be able to do it because the Republican House of Representatives would reject everything he proposed.
What we do not know is what would happen to that balance should Romney-Ryan prevail. We do not know because we do not know which Romney will show up for the presidential oath.
Will it be the Romney of the Republican primaries, winning by “me-too-ing” even the most irresponsible panderings of his opponents to the party’s emerging far right? Or will it be the Romney of the past month, shamelessly adjusting his avowed principles to match the polls?
It’s unpredictable. Romney became wealthy by doing or saying anything to “close the deal.” That’s in the tough-minded tradition of entrepreneurship, of course, and it works well and for the most part honorably in business dealings. But government is much more than a business, and governing is much more than a search for efficiency and profits.
If Romney closes the deal for the presidency, he cannot responsibly do what he did at Bain Capital: fix it and flip it. This is, after all, our country, not his. And not the tea party’s. And not Obama’s.
As president for at least four years, Romney would have to operate beyond the narrow parameters of “doing deals” or he would destroy the crucial and democracy-sustaining balance between community and individuality.
But it’s unlikely that he can resist, even if he wants to, the controlling voices of radical individualism, including his vice president, who scoff at the importance of national community.
He can repeal the health care act but cannot preserve, as promised, “the good parts,” because all the parts are fiscally interrelated.
He can cut taxes but cannot deliver the promised offsetting cuts in deductions, because each was lobbied through Congress by interests that remain powerful; reducing revenues alone will neither balance the budget nor ease the deficit.
He can make Medicare a voucher system, but that will not improve health care, because the greatest threat to our economy isn’t Medicare; it’s steadily rising and unsustainable health care costs for everyone.
And he cannot fix unemployment or the economy by slashing away at 22 million government jobs.
Satire aside, Romney would indeed have the “nation’s worst job.” But can we afford for him to?