Every four years we elect a president and every four years we hear that “this is the most consequential election of a generation” (or some variant thereof). Since it’s impossible to know counterfactuals, we can never really know which elections turned out to be most significant. Would Al Gore have bankrupted the country and mired America in a war in Iraq? Would John McCain have rallied the GOP around some form of climate change policy? We’ll never know.
The 2012 election will be different than recent others in a substantive way: a series of major policies are set to go into effect in 2013 and 2014 that will define the nation for decades to come, and President Obama’s positions are diametrically opposed to those of the Republicans.
All the Bush tax cuts are set to expire on December 31, 2012. If Congress takes no action to extend any of the cuts, taxes will increase on everyone (including the middle class) and the deficit be reduced by more than $3 trillion per decade.
Obama wants to continue the cuts for those making less than $250,000 a year but allow marginal rates on the rich to rise, saving approximately $700 billion per decade. The Republicans want all the cuts extended; if a Republican wins in November, this is likely to happen.
So the progressivity of the tax code is at stake in the upcoming election, and that means major fiscal choices. Extending tax cuts for the rich would likely mean cuts in other parts of the Federal budget—cuts to the social services that lower and middle income Americans rely on.
Also set to take effect beginning in 2013 are the cuts in defense and discretionary spending that were set in motion by the failure of the “Super Committee”. The defense cuts total approximately $500 billion over the next decade, and would be the first major reductions in defense spending since the beginning of the “war on terror” in 2001. Obama has pledged to veto any changes to this deal, saying that the defense cuts must occur. It is extremely unlikely that a Republican president would do the same; Romney or Gingrich would almost certainly use the failure of the Super Committee to push for even deeper cuts in social programs.
The fate of healthcare in America could well be decided by the Supreme Court early this summer, in advance of the election. The Court’s decision aside, healthcare faces sharply different futures depending on who wins the White House (and the Congress) in November.
All the GOP presidential hopefuls have pledged to repeal “Obamacare”. If this occurs, benefits that millions are now enjoying could be ended (e.g., older children on their parents’ plans, seniors no longer subject to the “donut hole”, patients with pre-existing conditions who were finally able to secure coverage). The Affordable Care Act also includes dozens of innovative measures aimed at improving the overall quality of care and lowering Medicare’s long-term cost trajectory; these too would be lost.
The nation will also be choosing between hugely different positions on immigration policy and gay rights. Obama signifies inclusion and tolerance, while most Republicans come down hard in favor of fences, marriage amendments, and thinly-veiled bigotry.
And don’t forget: it’s likely that two of the most progressive Supreme Court justices—Ginsburg and Breyer—will retire during the next presidential term. A Republican president would try to turn a 5-4 right-wing majority into a 7-2 majority, pushing back progressive causes for generations. With the Roberts Court clearly favoring business interests over the public good, any upcoming Supreme Court nominations could well turn out to be the most consequential outcome of the 2012 election.
All things considered, I hope that everyone dedicated to reason, justice, and equality will realize what’s at stake in 2012 and rally around President Obama. I have been a harsh critic at times, but given the crises he inherited, the obstacles constantly in his way, and the immense difficulty of actually governing, he has done a very good job and deserves re-election. His vision for the country is the right one, and the alternative is simply horrible.
Happy New Year!