Two things were notable in the debate on October 3: the ennui of Barack Obama and the twist made by Mitt Romney.
President Obama looked ill at ease, as if he were tired of his office. Does he really want to stay for another four years? Certainly he wants to run for a second term; he enjoys campaigning and he is good at it. But the direct, personal confrontation with Romney was a reminder to him of the necessities of governing, best shown in the infighting of compromise and the building of majorities. Outside on the hustings are speeches, applause, and acclaim; inside Washington are the deliberations of choice and the deals that result. For all his partiality to -government, Obama is an outside-the-Beltway man. When it comes to governing, he loses his steam and looks as if he longs to be elsewhere.
Mitt Romney, however, accomplished a twist from private to -public. In the primaries against Republican opponents he was the businessman, as opposed to his rivals who had spent their lives in government. In the debate he made three passing references to how his business experience made him aware of actions by government that people always in government might not see, regarding regulation, overseas jobs, and health care. He also related anecdotes of his experience in campaigning. But above all, Romney made a point of his experience as Massachusetts governor—as a politician. As a politician he knew how to work with both parties; he could be bipartisan and govern successfully in a Democratic state.
Bipartisan in what? In the passage of a health care law uncomfortably close to Obama-care, a law that had been his chief disadvantage in his candidacy to the Republican party. Romney now turned the minus into a plus: The very bipartisanship that was suspect among Republicans was now his main argument against Obama. The president had promised a bipartisan transformation but had actually sought and obtained a narrow partisan triumph. It was all the more a triumph not only because no Republican had voted for Obama-care but also because it was unpopular. If Obama had cared to do it, more work with the other party would have produced a law that would feel better to more people. Romney presented himself not as a businessman, nor as a reluctant politician nourished on nonpolitical experience, but as a politician with political experience, a better one than Obama. He enjoyed the debate and looked as if he would enjoy being president.
The economic basis for bipartisanship is growth. Without sufficient growth government must either tax or cut spending or do both, with an emphasis on one or the other. Implicitly Obama abandoned growth in this debate and has done so throughout the campaign; this is the meaning of his failure to produce a plan for the next four years. He never said that the consequence of no growth is austerity, but that is what is in his mind and, he believes, in the voters’ minds. In a climate of reduced hope, which means hope in growth, Obama promises the people that he will be on their side. That is the thinking behind his effective abandonment of bipartisanship. Without growth we are headed toward a battle of the parties, essentially the rich versus the middle class, in which Democrats will have the advantage over the oligarchic defenders of the rich. Their call is for “fairness,” and Obama repeated it in the debate.
Fairness means redistribution, not so much in a spirit of generosity as with a certain vengeance against the greedy among the rich. The mellow rich—captains of green industry and Hollywood entertainers—will be exempted from the exactions of fairness or rewarded with the glow of virtue. Fairness is the new substitute for progress, because progress requires growth. A growing economy makes America an example to the world and justifies its leadership as the only superpower. Fairness without growth leaves us in the condition of Europe, with little ambition except to live as fairly as possible—a goal that Europe now finds difficult if not impossible. The struggle for fairness is what lies ahead, according to the Democrats. It will be partisan, perhaps bitterly partisan, in the coming climate of austerity. Obama’s air of ennui in the debate arises not just from his personal character of cool but more from his thoughts about the future. He sees America in decline. He does not say it, but he sees it, and it determines his politics as well as his demeanor.
Romney looked confident in himself and in growth, and consequently in the prospects of America. This is not logic, but it’s politics. Government has a role different from Obama’s view. Its purpose is not to “cut out the middleman” so as to provide fairness to the people (as Obama boasted he had done in putting government in charge of student loans), but to foster growth. Growth means growth in jobs more than in wealth, because growth redistributes wealth through jobs, in which people earn their checks for themselves rather than wait for them to come in the mail. Government does not really cut out the middleman; it becomes the middleman. Romney was willing to guess that the private sector would be less costly than the government. This is not the antigovernment animus of the Tea Party, but it aims at the same goal with greater effect because it can reasonably claim to be bipartisan. With the same stroke Romney gave his party a considerable boost.
Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.