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The Most Important Election of Our Lives

The campaign is down to its last twenty-four hours. And if you’re reading this blog item, you’ve probably made up your mind about whether you support President Obama or Mitt Romney. But you might not feel good about that choice. And you might be wondering whether the hassle of voting is worth it. If so, I can give you one reason why you should.

This could be the most important election of your lifetime.

The stakes of an election aren’t always apparent in advance. In 2000, most so-called experts spent the campaign marveling at the lack of difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Then Bush got elected and enacted his tax cuts. Then 9/11 happened. And then the U.S. invaded Iraq. We can’t rerun history. But if the Palm Beach County ballots had looked a little different and Gore had become president, the eight years that followed probably would have unfolded differently.

This time around, nobody should be confused. The differences between Obama and Romney are not ambiguous—not even now, after Romney’s post-convention attempt to act like the more moderate, more sensible Republican many of us once thought he could be. The gap between what Obama and Romney believe—and between what each man proposes to do—is larger than it has been for any election I can remember.

Think about some numbers.

Eight to ten million. That’s the number of people who would lose eligibility for food stamps under the Ryan budget, which Romney praised and pledged to sign. Keep in mind that, in the wake of welfare reform and the decline of cash assistance from the federal government, food stamps have become the primary source of support for low-income people. At least a quarter would be children.

Two hundred thousand and 10 million. That’s the number of kids who’d lose Head Start and the number of college students who’d see Pell Grants decline by $1000, according to official administration estimates, under the Ryan budget that Romney effectively endorsed—unless Romney decided to spare those programs, forcing deeper cuts to other programs.

Fifty-two million. That’s how many people could lose health insurance if Romney repeals Obamacare and enacts his plan for Medicaid. In case it’s not self-evident, that’s a lot of people—about one-sixth of the entire American population. 

Eight-hundred billion. That's the ten-year cost of extending the Bush tax cuts for incomes over $250,000. It's a tax cut that benefits only the wealthy; offsetting the cost is a big reason why so many other cuts would have to take place.

The numbers are not precise; each depends on a set of assumptions about policy and, in some cases, the economy. But they give you some idea of the magnitude of the choice voters are facing. And the numbers alone don’t tell the full story.

For more than a hundred years, this country has been trying to manage and tame capitalism, not to undermine it but to save it, by protecting people from its caprice and excess. This crusade advanced in three great waves, pushed along by three of our greatest presidents—Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Era, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. The changes Romney has proposed would touch, and undermine, accomplishments that trace back to each of these eras. They would alter the social contract, as it has existed for generations, touching the middle class just as surely as they would touch the poor.

But could Romney actually accomplish all of that? Would he even try? Smart, thoughtful conservatives like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and David Frum have suggested the answer to both questions is "no," grasping at leaks from Romney advisers and pointing to Romney’s record in Massachusetts, where he worked with a Democratic legislature. Broadly speaking, they share Romney's goals of smaller government and more conservative social policies, while dissenting from more extreme Republican positions. I can understand why they would want to believe Romney would govern in a similar way—and I would like to believe they are right.

But the simplest explanation for Romney’s behavior, the only one fully consistent with his persona as governor of Massachusetts and his persona(s) as candidate for the presidency, is that he will respond to the political pressure around him. And for the next four years, it's safe to assume, the pressure around him would come more from the right than the left. House Republicans have already voted for the Ryan budget. They have no incentive not to do so again. The Senate might resist, particularly if Democrats maintain control, but, at best, they’d succeed in moderating the conservative agenda. And an agenda only half as bold as the one I described above would still have dramatic effects. It would still be, to use Romney's own term, "severely conservative."

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BUT ON TUESDAY VOTERS won’t only be determining the future of the welfare state—or reproductive rights or any of other vital policy areas in which Obama and Romney have such stark differences. They’ll also be rendering a verdict about the importance of candor in presidential campaigns.

We shouldn’t be naïve about this. All politicians say misleading things. And that includes President Obama. He never misses a chance to quote the headline on Romney’s infamous op-ed, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” even though Romney didn’t write the headline and Obama himself ended up putting the companies through bankruptcy. Obama’s ads have attacked Romney for outsourcing at Bain, even though much of the outsourcing took place after Romney left—and the long-term, macroeconomic effects of outsourcing are a matter of legitimate debate. Obama routinely attacks Romney for threatening to leave seniors at the mercy of insurance companies, even though Obama’s own health care plan relies heavily on private insurance to provide coverage to non-elderly Americans.

But even when Obama’s claims have gotten specific facts wrong, they have told a larger story about policy that’s true. Romney really did say he opposed direct government loans to get Chrysler and General Motors through bankruptcy. Without those loans, the companies, and the entire auto industry, likely would have collapsed. Romney may not have been in charge of all the outsourcing deals in Obama’s ads, but he was among the early developers of the practice at Bain—and, as president, Romney would enact policies that reward outsourcing without adequate protection or help for those who lose their jobs. And, yes, Obamacare relies on private insurance to deliver coverage to non-elderly Americans. But Obamcare regulates those plans extensively, giving Americans security they don’t have now. Romney’s Medicare plan, by contrast, would likely undermine the security seniors have, by taking away the kind of security only a government program (or an extraordinarily well regulated system of private insurance) can provide.

Romney, meanwhile, has been saying things that are just flatly untrue, specifically and generally—whether it’s taking quotations (like Obama’s “you didn’t build that”) grotesquely out of context or making claims about policy (like suggesting Obama got rid of work requirements in welfare) that independent fact-checkers found to be clearly false. Romney has blamed Obama for running high deficits in the present, even though they are more the result of Bush-era policies, and suggested the auto industry rescue encouraged Chrysler and GM to outsource jobs to China, even though both companies are creating jobs here and the rescue itself probably saved a million American jobs. Romney has said he has a plan to protect people with pre-existing medical conditions, even though repeal of the Affordable Care Act would eliminate the guarantee of comprehensive benefits that will begin in 2014, and he has demonized Obama for taking $716 billion from Medicare, even though Ryan's own budget—which Romney praised and said he would sign—did the same. Romney has told a newspaper that "no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda," even though he'd said previously he would sign Republican bills restricting abortion rights and has pledged, repeatedly, to appoint conservative judges and justices who would, among other things, support overruling Roe v. Wade.

The dishonesty is of a piece with his cavalier attitude towards providing actual policy proposals that outside analysts can evaluate. This is the fourth presidential campaign I’ve covered as a regular policy reporter and I can’t recall a major candidate, from either party, who provided less information or answered fewer questions than Romney has. John McCain’s 2008 campaign didn’t have a reputation for policy heft. But when McCain put out his health care proposal, it was an actual plan with real numbers. And he dispatched his advisers to talk about it. Liberals like me didin't love the plan itself, but at least we had a common frame of reference for debating it. Romney, by contrast, refuses to answer questions and, with only a few exceptions, has not even made advisers available for serious on-the-record interviews. Would Romney’s plan provide assistance for everybody, or just those who pay taxes? How much would it cost? These are basic, fundamental questions and nobody from the Romney campaign has answered them. (Those of us writing about it have been left to read between the lines of carefully worded campaign blog posts and columns by well-connected conservative writers.)

It’s not an isolated example. Here we are, a day left in the campaign, and Romney still hasn’t told us how he’d offset the cost of his massive tax cut—except to say he’d do it through deductions without raising taxes on the middle class, an approach that independent analysts have said is mathematically impossible. Romney still hasn't provided details on his "five-point plan" to boost the economy, even though his central claim as a candidate is that he'd do more to improve growth. Romney still hasn’t told us which programs he’d cut in order to cap non-defense federal spending at 16 percent, even though independent analysts have suggested doing so would require draconian cuts few Americans would find acceptable. Even in the spotlight of a nationally televised debate, when confronted with these questions, Romney wouldn't answer.

Romney’s distortions and evasions have been so frequent, and so central to his campaign, that the blogger Steve Benen created a weekly feature on them called “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity.” Last week, in its 41st edition, included 33 separate items. And it’s not just liberal writers who have noticed. Paul Ryan’s infamous convention speech was something of a watershed moment: Confronted with multiple and obvious distortions, the media reacted by reporting that Ryan was not telling the truth.

And yet Romney and his advisers haven’t stopped or apologized. On the contrary, they have all but declared that deception is their plan, reveling in the disapproval of elites. Back in the spring, one top Romney advisor foretold the moment when, after the primaries, the campaign would “etch-a-sketch” Romney’s persona from conservative to moderate. Then, in the late summer, another Romney advisor declared that "we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers."

The message couldn’t be clearer. Romney and his advisers don’t care about consistency, transparency, or candor. And they think they can get away with it. Are they right? We’ll find out on Tuesday night.

FOR PROGRESSIVES, I KNOW, getting riled up to vote against Romney is easy. But getting riled up to vote for Obama? For many, that’s still difficult. And I suppose I can understand why. The 2008 election was about ending a dreary, dreadful period of conservative governance. It was also about electing the first African-American president—and imagining the agenda he might enact. Four years later, the Bush Administration is a distant memory, an African-American is already the president, and the agenda Obama enacted feels inadequate. He didn’t do enough to boost the economy. He didn’t get a public option in health care reform. He didn’t enact cap-and-trade.

The shortcomings are real enough. And some, like the failure to do more for homeowners and the ambivalence towards Wall Street, seem to reflect clear misjudgments from the president. But the ledger has another half. The Recovery Act saved the country from a depression, saved millions of jobs, and laid the groundwork for a green economy. Financial reform, however weak, established new rules for lending and banking that, at the very least, should protect consumers from fraud. The auto industry rescue saved a vital piece of American manufacturing, while sparing the Midwest from outright economic catastrophe. Health care reform, notwithstanding its many flaws, will make insurance available to nearly everybody, make coverage more secure for those who have it, and begin the hard work of making medical care less expensive. It's also what Senator Tom Harkin memorably called a "starter home," with a good foundation and room for expansion—in other words, a policy approach that progressives can improve and expand over time. The same is true for Obama's other reforms, just as it was for signature liberal policies like Social Security when they first became law. And the best ideas Obama has put forward for the next four years, like the American Jobs Act, adopt the same approach he took in the last four.

By any reasonable standard, no president since LBJ accomplished as much on domestic policy. And LBJ didn’t have to contend with the same political obstacles. The public wasn’t as skeptical of government. Conservatives didn’t have (quite) as much power to obstruct. Obama made plenty of mistakes, about policy and about tactics, but he also fought the good fight—and, more important, he did so when it was difficult. He didn’t let the auto industry die, even though the polls said it would be unpopular. He didn’t let Republicans roll him on food stamps on Medicaid, even though it would have helped him achieve an elusive spending deal. He didn’t drop health care reform—not in January, 2009, when advisers warned him it would be difficult; not in August, 2009, when the Tea Party protests exploded; and not in January, 2010, when Scott Brown’s election made enactment seem impossible.

Obama staked his political life on these gambits. With this election, progressives can help decide whether he made the right bet. And if they don't? The damage to progressive causes could last a long time.

Change in American politics is difficult, because the constitution divides power among three branches of government. Progressive change is almost impossible, because the big money in politics typically lines up on the other side. If progressives don’t reward Obama for what the positions he took—if they don’t turn out for him on election day—future reformers will take notice. And when they confront similar situations, when the polls start to look bad and advisers tell them to back off an important goal, they won't push forward defiantly. They'll buckle.

But the most important reason for progressive to go to the polls on Tuesday is the simplest. They need to make sure the accomplishments of the first term stay on the books, because the lives of real people depend upon them. I’m thinking of people like Caleb and Stacy Lihn.

You may remember the Lihns from the Democratic convention, when Stacy spoke about their baby girl, Zoe, who was born with a congenital heart defect. Zoe has had two open surgeries, with a third likely to follow. Someday she might need a transplant. Her medical bills are well into six figures and were on their way to exhausting a lifetime cap on benefits, a common feature even among relatively generous insurance policies, until the Affordable Care Act became law. Eventually the Lihns got a letter, from their insurance company, stating that the lifetime cap was gone. “Like so many moms with sick children,” Stacy said, “I shed tears and I could breathe easier knowing we have that net below us to catch us if we fall.”

There are literally tens of millions of Americans whose well-being is as dependent upon Tuesday’s vote as the Lihns is. They are the students who need government assistance paying for college. They are the working moms and dads who need food stamps to put dinner on the table. They are senior citizens, and their families, who need Medicaid to pay for long-term care. They are the janitors who need a union and the miners who need a safe workplace, the parents that need training for a new job and the kids who need a better public school.  

Hope and change? In 2008, it was an aspiration. In 2012, it is a work in progress. On Tuesday, we'll find out if the progress continues.

Updates: I made some changes for style, added references to tax cuts for the wealthy and Obama's jobs proposals, clarified my thoughts about the conservative columnists, and tweaked the ending.