2012 should prove to be an ideological election about the economy. Not all campaigns are so clear cut. Sometimes moderate Republicans raise taxes (like George H.W. Bush did); at other times, pragmatic Democrats cut spending (like Bill Clinton did).
But this year, Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee, will run an ideological campaign calling for smaller government and fewer taxes against an equally ideological President Obama, who wants more government and higher taxes. In this divided red state/blue state era, the supporters of each candidate demand no less and will have a clear choice.
This year's campaign sloganeering will remind us of all the classic American arguments: Was it New Deal big government or World War II-inspired entrepreneurialism that truly ended the Great Depression? Were we better off under Ronald Reagan's or Bill Clinton's economic policies? Was it unfettered Wall Street greed or Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae government corruption that caused the 2008 financial meltdown? And which model better served its people: America's or the European Union's?
Romney will make the implicit case that his prior success in the private sector and his free enterprise know-how will bring Americans more personal freedom and prosperity -- even if the upsurge may result in more inequality.
If we simplify or cut tax rates, slash federal spending, pay down the debt, prune away regulations and push ahead with far more fossil fuel development, Romney will argue that employment will improve and that those with money now on the sidelines will get back into the game. The economy will supposedly expand, more wealth will circulate and greater revenue from taxes will be collected. Whether someone ends up with more money than someone else won't be as important as the fact that those in the middle and on the bottom will be better off than they are now.
President Obama will decry "trickle down economics" and counter with an appeal to equality. He revealed his own views about fairness in April 2008. When asked about raising the tax rates on capital gains, Senator Obama replied that he would indeed raise taxes for "purposes of fairness" alone -- even if such hikes led to less aggregate revenue for all.