In picking Rep. Paul Ryan, whose eponymous budget plan has become synonymous with political polarization, Mitt Romney assured an ideological campaign where a debate over the role of government will be front and center. It is a debate the Obama campaign and partisans on both sides are also eager to have. But it’s not a debate that swing voters want.
They aren’t as interested in choosing whether government should be more active or less. They are more interested in simply having it work.
BLAME IT ON THE WAVE
This debate is the culmination of four consecutive wave elections — elections where each side (wrongly) assumed a mandate from the American public.
It started in 2006 when, fed up with one party control, voters tossed Congressional Republicans out of power. Once, the party of “outsider” Republicans had turned into creatures of Washington. Voters saw them as gluttonous, self-absorbed and more interested in retaining power than using their power to help the little guy.
Two years later, voters elected a president who promised to break the partisan gridlock and to focus on an agenda that transcended party and special interest groups.
Yet, elected as a counter-weight to previous GOP rule, Democrats turned out to act much like them. They passed legislation on party-line only votes. They pushed a health care law through Congress, but failed to make the case for how it was going to help people survive a flailing economy.
Fueled by this frustration, voters put Republicans back in control of the House in 2010. But like the Democrats before them, Republicans mistook the election as a mandate for their own ideology — an ideology that saw compromise as a dirty word. And, less than two years after providing the energy for the 2010 sweep of Congress, the tea party is an unpopular than ever.
Six years after voters sent a message to Republicans that they were sick and tired of a government that was polarized and self-absorbed, they find a political system that is as polarized and ineffective as ever.
Each wave election has ultimately produced a class of politicians who are convinced that their victory was about them rather than a repudiation of the tactics and behavior of the other party. They were convinced that voters were choosing an ideology, when in reality they were simply trying to punish the folks who put ideology over accomplishment and compromise.
PHILOSOPHY FOLLOWS FUNCTION
Which brings us to today. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney argue that this election provides voters with a very stark choice between two competing ideologies. One that says that government can be part of the solution (Obama) and one that says that government is getting in the way of the solution (Romney).
But there are plenty of voters out there who are more concerned about function than ideology. They aren’t spending their evenings debating the benefits of Hayek or Keynesian economic models. They are just trying to figure out which candidate is capable of getting something done. They will reward the politician who succeeds in getting things moving again. But that shouldn’t be taken as proof that voters are endorsing the philosophical underpinnings of that success.
In other words, voters are looking less at ideology and more at competency. And that’s not something that either side has been able to show that can deliver.