This election isn't a collision between a candidate who believes in unregulated free markets and a candidate who believes in state control. It's not a fight between big government and small government. (Just look at Romney's plans to boost defense spending by $2 trillion.) It's not a choice between rugged individualism and compassionate communitarianism, heartland values and coastal elites, or even Keynesian stimulus and austerity economics.
Romney and Obama are well within the American consensus. They're blue-state, Harvard-educated technocrats who like their information in chart form and their advisers sporting Ph.Ds. They believe in the genius of free markets, the necessity of a federal safety net and the importance of a strong military. They don't question the wisdom of the drug war, drone strikes or even most of the Bush tax cuts. Their records show they govern prudently, analytically and honorably.
Which isn't to say that this election isn't consequential. It is. In fact, it's unusually consequential, both in terms of policy and politics.
Here's what will happen if Obama is re-elected: The Affordable Care Act will go into effect, more or less on schedule, ensuring that nearly every American has health insurance. The Dodd-Frank financial reforms will continue to be hammered out, and Wall Street will continue to be hemmed in. Whatever deficit-reduction deal we reach will include tax increases on richer Americans and defense cuts. The next Supreme Court vacancy will be filled by a justice in the mold of Sotomayor or Kagan rather than Scalia or Alito.
Here's what will happen if Romney wins: The Affordable Care Act will be repealed or reworked, depending on whether Democrats retain control of the Senate. The Dodd-Frank financial reforms will likely be gutted, through legislation or through stocking the regulatory agencies with finance-friendly appointees who will interpret the rules in ways Wall Street prefers. Whatever deficit-reduction deal is reached will not include taxes on high-income Americans or defense cuts, which means it will have to include more cuts to programs that serve low-income America. The next Supreme Court vacancy will be filled by a justice in the mold of Scalia or Alito rather than Sotomayor or Kagan.
These aren't visions of a world in which America tips into socialism or returns to a pre-New Deal policy consensus. But they are different visions. In Obama's America, health insurance is extended to almost every American. In Romney's America, as many as 50 million fewer people have health insurance, as he repeals the Affordable Care Act and cuts deep into Medicaid. In Obama's America, taxes on the rich are even higher than they were in the Clinton years. In Romney's America, programs for the poor have far less funding and defense has far more. In Obama's America, an opening on the Supreme Court will mean Roe vs. Wade is safe and Citizens United is under threat. In Romney's America, it will be the reverse.
Economically, we can expect a quickened recovery under either president. The housing market is turning the corner, consumers are spending, banks are lending, debts are being paid down, Europe is stabilizing, and recent months have seen steady job growth. As Bloomberg News writes, "No matter who wins the election tomorrow, the economy is on course to enjoy faster growth in the next four years as the headwinds that have held it back turn into tailwinds."
That makes this election unusually politically important, as whoever wins will see his presidency, his party and his policy agenda strengthened by the recovery. But whichever side ends up on the losing end of that recovery should take solace in the fact that, despite what they've heard, the other party almost certainly isn't going to destroy the country, and in fact may even surprise to the upside.