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.
In the last four years, Obama has made it clear exactly what he meant. Almost half of Americans pay no income taxes, and more people than ever are on food stamps. Government is larger than ever, and more rules regulate business. The president pushed through a takeover of health care that may prove to be the greatest federal entitlement since Social Security. He has borrowed $5 trillion in less than four years in an effort to fund more social services -- a gargantuan debt that he believes will require more taxes on the top brackets to pay back.
Obama editorializes about "fat cat" bankers, "corporate jet owners," those who junket to the Super Bowl or Las Vegas, and those selfish Americans who should take a time out from profiteering, or who do not know when they have already made quite enough money. He believes that Americans are not doing well because a few on top are doing too well -- as the 1 percent shear the other 99 percent of the flock below in a zero-sum economy. Only more noble and competent technocratic officials can ensure that unfettered businesses spread rather than hoard their profits.
Romney will counter that if farmers do not have to worry about new "green" regulations, if oil men can drill on more federal lands, if businessmen know their taxes won't go up, if financiers believe they should make rather than apologize for profits, then more Americans will find work, more oil found will mean cheaper gas for all and business people will win a greater share abroad of the world's trade and commerce.
These are the ancient arguments that once pitted the liberty of the American Revolution against the egalitarianism of the French, the statist visions of John Maynard Keynes against the individualism of Friedrich Hayek, and the tragic admission that we cannot be truly free if we are all forced to end up roughly equal versus the idealism that if we are all roughly equal then we are at last truly free.
In blunter terms, Romney's message is that, if you have the money to drive a nice Kia, what do you care if a sleek Mercedes whizzes by? Obama's answer, in contrast, is that you should care, because the guy in the Mercedes probably took something from you.
The election will hinge upon how many people who can't afford a Kia now believe that they might be able to under Romney -- and who could care less about the other guy in the Mercedes.