This week’s Republican presidential candidate debate focusing on the economy was the latest reminder that American voters will have a clear choice to make when they go to the polls next year.
One by one, each of the eight GOP contenders took turns attacking the federal government, even blaming Washington rather than Wall Street for the 2008 financial collapse. Rep. Michele Bachmann fingered a 30-year-old federal law, the Community Reinvestment Act, for promoting subprime loans for homebuyers who couldn’t afford them, declining to pin any responsibility on bankers eager for new sources of profit. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich even suggested that two Democrats, Rep. Barney Frank and former Sen. Chris Dodd — the architects of financial regulatory legislation — be thrown in jail ahead of any Wall Street executive, because of what they did to create “the environment” for the meltdown.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney didn’t mention jail, but said Dodd and Frank “were the wrong guys at the wrong time,” since their bill will “usher in what will be hundreds and thousands of pages of new regulations” on the financial sector. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum repeated his criticisms of government, as he advocated eliminating the corporate tax on manufacturers, while businessman Herman Cain pushed for his “9-9-9” plan, cutting taxes on corporations and individual income.
Romney did briefly defend the government rescue of several large Wall Street banks, saying it was essential to “preserve our currency and maintain America and our financial system.” But this may have been the only comment in the almost two-hour exchange acknowledging that government played any sort of helpful role.
For his part, President Obama has agreed that the private sector creates most jobs in this country, but he argues there is a role for the government in setting up circumstances that are favorable for businesses to ply their trade. And he insists that as long as the American people are hurting for work, and the private sector is struggling, it’s up to the public sector to pitch in, hiring teachers, first responders and construction workers for projects that promote the common good.
It’s no surprise to hear Republicans criticize government while Democrats argue it has a role in looking after those who can’t help themselves. That’s an essence of what separates the two political parties. But the lines seem drawn this year more sharply than ever. Ralph Nader observed back in 1996 that there wasn’t much difference between his main opponents. Running under a third-party banner, Nader said deciding between President Bill Clinton and Republican Senator Bob Dole was like choosing between Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee.
I suspect we won’t hear that in 2012.
Photo of GOP debate by Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images.