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The fact that the presidential vote matters so much is a sign not of national health but of dysfunction.
The seemingly eternal contest between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney ends today (though the battle of the recounts might be just beginning). And, whichever way you want the election to go, only the masochists and the political consultants are sorry it’s coming to an end.
It’s funny. There’s a disconnect between the way we talk about democracy and the way we actually feel about it. We’re told elections are a glorious thing. Anyone feel glorious?
We’re constantly informed that high voter turnout is a good thing because, well, it is! But what if the reason more people are engaged in the process is that they’re terrified by what the other guy might do? Obama has invested heavily in scaring the stuffing out of his Democratic base, in the hope that fear rather than idealism will get the job done.
As the challenger, Romney has relied on scare tactics less. Some would argue this has been mostly out of necessity. Romney needs Obama supporters to switch their loyalties, and demonizing the president turns off such voters. Also, Romney has Obama’s actual record to work with, making hypothetical scare tactics less necessary. Even so, Romney has hardly gone out of his way to distance himself from, say, Donald Trump and others eager to turn Obama into some sort of Manchurian candidate.
It should surprise no one who’s read this column for the past eight years that I hope Romney defeats Obama decisively when the votes are tallied. But the truth is that from a conservative perspective, a Romney victory would simply be making the best of a bad situation.
The mere fact that presidential elections matter this much is not a sign of national health but of national dysfunction. The more the federal government gets involved in every aspect of our lives — for good or ill — the more people will feel that their livelihoods, lifestyles, even their actual lives are at stake in a presidential election. If the federal government didn’t have so much leverage over your life, politicians wouldn’t be able to scare you into the voting booths.
For instance, beneath the partisan distortions and hyperbole, Obama’s “war on women” rhetoric is the idea that the federal government should be the guarantor of “reproductive freedom” — a malleable term that includes everything from the right to abortion on demand to subsidized birth control pills. Whatever the merits of that argument, the simple fact is that a government that has the power to give you everything you want has the power to take it away, as well.
That’s one reason Supreme Court appointments have become such ridiculous spectacles. The justices have acquired powers historically belonging to democratically elected politicians, in the executive and legislative branches. With so much at stake, and with so little accountability once confirmed, it’s no wonder the confirmation process has become an inside-the-beltway version of a presidential campaign. Given the power of the Supreme Court, it’s only rational to fight hammer and tongs over every appointment.
President George W. Bush adopted a number of policies liberals once decried as dangerous expansions of the imperial presidency. With a few exceptions, few complain about those powers now that Obama is the president. The rule seems to be runaway executive power is good, so long as my guy is in power.
That’s a dangerous principle. “Those who tried to warn us back at the beginning of the New Deal of the dangers of one-man rule that lay ahead on the path we were taking toward strong, centralized government may not have been so wrong,” then-California Sen. Alan Cranston conceded at the height of the Watergate hearings in 1973.
In his brilliant new book, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, Charles Kesler argues that it was Woodrow Wilson who introduced the idea that American presidents must have a “vision” for where they should take the country.
In other words, everyone’s life and lifestyle somehow needed to conform to the priorities of a politician in Washington. The 19th century notion that presidents should be “statesmen” who guarded the Constitution gave way to the 20th century fetish for “leaders” who mold the public to their vision.
Unfortunately, since Wilson, this has become something of a bipartisan idea. Republicans are just as likely to talk about the “vision thing” as Democrats. As a conservative, I certainly prefer the Republican vision to the Democratic. Republicans, for instance, rarely vow to “fundamentally transform America.”
But the libertarian in me aches for a time when the president’s vision was irrelevant and national elections just didn’t matter that much.
Jonah Goldberg is editor at large ofNational Review Onlineand a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
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