Obama vs. Romney: Choose Your Own Disaster

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The winner of Election 2012 is likely to preside over more losses to life, liberty, and property. Neither candidate is equipped to lead.

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Describing Election 2012 as the "dullest campaign ever," David Brooks writes that "both parties are driven more by hatred than by love. Both sides feel it would be a disaster for the country if the other side had power during the next four years." You know what? Both sides have a point. American presidential elections are effectively a two-party affair. The bizarre phenomenon of partisanship causes so many to insist that the Republican or the Democrat is the right man for the country.

It just isn't so this time.

Various reforms are needed if the America of four years from now is to be a moral, solvent country governed by the rule of law. And neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney will implement them.

The Economist is one of a very few outlets facing this uncomfortable truth, or at least a part of it. Republicans need to recognize that government has an important role to play in a capitalist economy, an editorial states, "providing public goods and a safety net." I hasten to add that many on the right are willing to acknowledge as much. In office, however, the GOP never seems to advance those goals any better than Democrats. (Often they do worse, as when George W. Bush filled key positions with bureaucrats who performed incompetently.) Still hammering the GOP, The Economist asks, "Why on earth are people who champion a small state supporting an expensive war on drugs that has filled the prisons to bursting point without reducing the supply of narcotics?" Indeed, the War on Drugs is a failure spanning numerous decades. It is also anathema to small government.

"But the Republicans' main problem is taxes," the magazine concludes. "Successful deficit-reduction plans require at least some of the gap -- perhaps around a quarter -- to be closed by new revenue. If the Republicans got rid of loopholes, they could cut all the main tax rates and still raise more money." Alas, the GOP consensus is that a deal pairing tax hikes with spending cuts ten times as big would be unacceptable! Put simply, they care more about taxes than deficits. Hence the deficit increases that always seem to happen under all Republican presidents.

Sure, Rep. Paul Ryan talks the talk about finally addressing the problem. So did Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. The Pledge, as colossal a failure as Washington, D.C., has ever seen, outlasted them all.

It endures even now.

Says The Economist, turning to the Democrats, their challenge is "more on the spending side," adding that "productivity has been flat in the public sector at a time when it has doubled in the private sector. Mr Obama needs to decide whether he is on the side of taxpayers or public-sector workers (who, if they work for the federal government, earn more than their private-sector equivalents do in wages and benefits). He needs to get serious about cutting back regulation, rather than increasing it; and he needs to spend more time listening to successful business leaders rather than telling them all is fine." I concur with most of that analysis, though it doesn't go far enough. As Larry Lessig noted in what remains one of the most penetrating critiques of President Obama's domestic agenda, he ran for office arguing that fundamental reform of the system was a prerequisite for doing the things that would make him a successful leader.

But Obama turned out to be perfectly content advancing his domestic agenda by bribing powerful lobbying interests, shoveling vast sums to Wall Street without adequately reforming the financial system, and otherwise deepening the epidemic of cronyism and special interest favors in American life. This doesn't surprise old hands like Kevin Drum and Jonathan Chait, who cynically expected the Obama they got, and are glad to take a health-care reform bill that's better, by their lights, than what any other Democrat has delivered. I understand their perspective.

But the average American is not a political junkie who knows from long experience when to believe a candidate and when to presume that his idealistic rhetoric is but a cynical flourish that he has no intention of backing up with actions. After the Bush Administration, it took a lot to get the American people to buy into the notion of politics as a means to meaningful reform. Obama's broken promises likely destroyed that possibility for a generation -- and as improbably as his promised agenda always was, there isn't any likelier path to fundamental reform on the horizon -- the next most mentioned vehicle for change is the all but departed Occupy Wall Street on the left, and the mostly co-opted Tea Party on the right. Anyone confident in either?

If that were all, we'd be in awful shape.

Alas, it's worse, for even unsentimental analysts like The Economist's editorial writers sum up the objectionable policies and pathologies of the Republicans and Democrats without mentioning the most worrisome and potentially catastrophic excesses of them all: the unprecedented assault on civil liberties, privacy, due process, Constitutional checks and balances, and morality that the United States has inflicted on itself since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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