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The Real Divide in the GOP Race

12:00 AM, Mar 2, 2012 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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It has been said that there is very little difference between the policy preferences of the three leading Republican presidential candidates. This may well be true. But there is a big difference between what the candidates think this election is about. 

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In an interview with Mitt Romney earlier this week, Bill O’Reilly gave the former Massachusetts governor the last word, inviting him to speak on any topic he wanted. Romney said the following:

“Well, this is an election all about the direction of America.  And the question is, are we gonna have a president who understands how to make the economy work for the American people and get people back to work. And my experience in the private economy, with real jobs, helping grow businesses — sometimes successfully and sometimes not — that experience [is what] we need in the White House. If people think they just need a politician in the White House, we got that. If you want somebody who’s gonna get the economy going, that’s what I’d bring to the White House.”

Romney’s answer — which, in one way or another, he has repeated throughout the campaign — conveys his conviction that the core problem with President Obama has been that his policies have kept us from experiencing the strong economic growth that our nation has essentially always experienced following a major recession.  To repair the damage of the Obama presidency, therefore (in this interpretation of events), the main order of business is to get the economy moving again.

The night before, Rick Santorum said the following:

“[W]e’re going to repeal…Obamacare. That is the biggest issue in this race. It’s an issue about fundamental freedom. It’s an issue about whether you want the government to take your money, and in exchange, give you a ‘right’….But, of course, when the government gives you a right, they can take that right away. And when the government gives you that right, they can tell you how to exercise that right. And they do — not just what doctors you can see and what insurance policies [you can buy], or how much you’re going to get fined if you don’t do what the government tells you to do, but even go[ing] so far as to tell you how to exercise your faith as part of your health care....If the government can go that far with Obamacare, just think what’s next.”

Santorum then quoted from the Declaration of Independence, which asserts the self-evident truth that our rights come from our creator, not from government.

Santorum’s answer — which, in one way or another, he too has repeated throughout this campaign — conveys his conviction that the core problem with President Obama has been Obama’s attack on America’s longstanding commitment to limited government and liberty. In this view of events, the lack of economic growth during Obama’s tenure —while very bad in its own right — is actually among the less dangerous aspects of the Obama presidency. Obama promised he would change America, and if Obamacare isn’t repealed, he will have done so. He will effectively have substituted his own preference for big government for the Founders’ preference for limited government. If Obama succeeds in these efforts, no amount of economic growth in future years will be able to fix the damage. Instead, to repair the damage of the Obama presidency (in this interpretation of events), we must repeal its highly unpopular centerpiece legislation: Obamacare.

Newt Gingrich has expressed essentially the same sentiments as Santorum. The first item on his legislative agenda is repealing Obamacare. Repealing Obamacare isn’t among the first five items on Romney’s legislative agenda.

As for President Obama, he pretends to think that this election is about the economy, because he knows that if it’s about Obamacare, he will lose. But does Obama really want to win this election because he cares about the economy, or because he wants to preserve the defining aspect of his transformational legacy — Obamacare?

To be sure, Santorum and Gingrich care greatly about restoring economic prosperity, much as Romney wants to repeal Obamacare. But there’s a big difference between thinking that this election is fundamentally about reversing a few years of sluggish economic growth, and thinking that it’s fundamentally about reaffirming (or rejecting) the commitment to limited government and liberty that has defined America across two glorious centuries.

The real divide in the GOP race is reflected in this question: Is it crucial to win this election primarily to restore economic growth, or is it crucial to win this election primarily to repeal Obamacare? The GOP candidates don’t agree on the answer.

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