Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Election a stark choice on America's future

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Analyst, and Michael Zuckerman, Special to CNN
August 24, 2012 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
The stage inside of the Tampa Bay Times Forum ahead of the Republican National Convention. Thousands will decend on Tampa for the four day convention ,August 27-30.
The stage inside of the Tampa Bay Times Forum ahead of the Republican National Convention. Thousands will decend on Tampa for the four day convention ,August 27-30.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen, Michael Zuckerman: GOP convention jump-starts general election
  • They say it's a "choice" election, presenting radically different visions about government's role
  • Writers: Election breaks tradition, not pivoting to center for general, but staying with base
  • Writers: Vote may force voters reckoning with stark question: Big government or small?

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter. Michael Zuckerman, his research assistant, is a Harvard College graduate who will be entering Harvard Law School.

(CNN) -- Buckle up! The political conventions in Tampa and Charlotte over the next two weeks will throw the 2012 election campaigns into high gear, and send it careering down a mean, rocky road toward one of the most important choices Americans have made in half a century.

Only twice before in the lives of most voters have we seen an election offering such radically different visions about the role of government in national life.

The first was 1964, when Lyndon Baines Johnson was holding up the Democratic standard, calling for government to create a Great Society with a cornucopia of new federal programs. On the other side, Barry Goldwater had seized the Republican banner from previously-dominant moderates and crusaded on the most conservative agenda in six decades, seeking to push back not only the Great Society, but much of the New Deal.

David Gergen
David Gergen
Michael Zuckerman
Michael Zuckerman

"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and ... moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" Goldwater declared to thunderous applause at the GOP convention. It was a bare-knuckles fight, but LBJ was campaigning in John F. Kennedy's cloak and Goldwater's proposals were seen as scary and radical. LBJ swept to a crushing victory. Score one for bigger government.

The second "choice" election came in 1980, when, after a decade of failed leadership, a man came galloping out of the West who seemed the most improbable of figures to get the country going again. And he was carrying with him many of Goldwater's ideas. But Ronald Regan turned out to be a strong leader with a million-dollar smile; Jimmy Carter, a man better suited to be a saint than a politician, went down decisively. Score one for smaller government.

This year's election is shaping up to be a rubber match with major implications for the country's future. Gov. Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate has dialed up the ideological contrast between the two tickets, while both sides have been throwing sharp elbows at each other (even by the low standards of American politics).

The harshening words and diverging visions speak to an election that breaks somewhat with tradition. Time was, as Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post and others have pointed out, the playbook was simple: run to the base in the primary and pivot back to the middle in the general election, winning over as many of the voters in the middle as you can. (In economics, this effect is called Hotelling's Game and is otherwise normally used to explain why gas stations all seem to be on the same corner.)

Abortion, Medicare hot topics before RNC
Challenging the GOP platform from within
Stewart: Romney knows what voters need

But this election features a small number of genuinely undecided voters --and high negatives for both party candidates, as Karl Rove notes in Thursday's Wall Street Journal. So, (although Rove would disagree) the dominant strategy has become playing to the base.

That explains Romney's picking Paul Ryan, but it also explains why partisans of both sides rejoiced when Ryan was picked: His strong conservative beliefs fire up the Democratic base as well as the Republican one.

If anything, this year's choice is starker than in 1980: Reagan had a pragmatic streak, so he was willing to compromise to get a deal done and keep moving forward (Tip O'Neill used to say that the Gipper would win more than half a loaf and come back for the rest later). Romney and Ryan, however, reinforced by the tea party, show no inclination to compromise. On the Democratic side, aides to President Obama are spreading the word that, if he wins, he has had enough of trying to accommodate the Republicans and will also be more confrontational.

Whether the two sides will seize upon their conventions to set forth more complete, detailed plans for the next four years remains to be seen. So far, they have refused to go beyond vagaries and harsh, trivial attacks on each other. Most voters are yearning for more courage and less bile.

But there should be no doubt that the two tickets stand behind radically different visions of the role of government and individuals. Under President Obama, federal spending is now 24% of GDP, far higher than in recent decades. While Obama talks of trimming, his most thoughtful advisers think the government is likely to grow in coming years no matter who wins (see Larry Summers's provocative column in the Financial Times this week).

In contrast, Romney has vowed to get federal spending down to 20%. That difference may not sound like much, but it roughly equates to over half a trillion dollars each year. At a time when 10,000 Baby Boomers are becoming eligible for Medicare and Social Security each day, going from 24% to 20% of GDP would mean massive cuts.

Presented with a stark choice between bigger government and smaller government, where are voters likely to come down? That is a question that has interested scholars for a long time. Some years ago, political scientists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril observed that Americans were "philosophical conservatives" but "operational liberals," that is, they would tell pollsters they wanted to keep government small, taxes down and socialism out. But when asked if they wanted the government to spend more on programs and benefits, they were all for it.

In the coming election, we may have finally reached a point of reckoning between these two conflicting impulses. And so, while conventions are generally the place for sweeping statements, the winning ticket will need to be able to speak operationally as well as philosophically.

All this makes for a dramatic series of addresses, not just from Mitt Romney and President Obama, but from their parties' top messengers: people like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. These conventions will offer them a chance to make a firm case to the American people on which kind of government, both operationally and philosophically, they should choose.

Looming over that choice is the question of whether, at the end of this campaign, the winner can actually govern. Certainly, the raucous, often vicious nature of the combat so far has not been encouraging. One of us (David) has been attending conventions for some 40 years and has witnessed a distinct change in tone; listening to the hot rhetoric in both conventions in 2004, it suddenly became comprehensible how the country could have wound up in Civil War back in 1861 after another election full of ramifications for the nation's future.

And the chasms between the two parties continue to widen before us. A deeply illuminating study, released a few days ago by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, has shown that over the past 14 years, the percentages of Democrats and Republicans who consider themselves "strong partisans" has shot up by about 20 points in each case.

So, in pushing voters to make a choice between sharply different visions, it is also imperative that the candidates look beyond November to the next four years, figuring out how they will bring the country together again when the brawl is over. The acceptance speeches are not just a moment to rally the base, they are also a place to begin laying the foundations of a successful presidency.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen and Michael Zuckerman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT