The Republican VP nominee is young, but the political debate between now and November is largely about how far back into history we want America to go.


The selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate is appropriate for many reasons, not the least of which is that it highlights the size of the chasm that now exists in American politics. Just a few hours after the announcement was made, on a Saturday morning in mid-August in a state trending Democratic, the New York Times' Nate Silver declared Ryan to be the "most conservative Republican member of Congress to be picked for the vice-presidential spot since at least 1900."

1900 is as good a date as any to start. Political operatives eternally preach that elections are about the future, but this time around I'm not so sure. It's easy to argue that the coming race is more about what has passed as history over the last 100 years: what we've learned as a nation. What we've seen as a people. What we've discovered as scholars and scientists. What we've endured as a country on the edge of virtually everything that goes on in this world. And what we want to do with all of that experience.

Do we want to go back a hundred years? Do we want to go back 50? Do we want to gingerly step ahead? Have the past few decades been good or bad? And what policies today can best fix the mistakes we have made? These are the questions that we should be asking our candidates, and that they should be asking us. Otherwise, we will continue to drift along, more in denial than in decline, failing to pay our bills, ignoring our own national needs, and pretending the world of our children will be better than our own.

This is why Ryan's entrance into the national campaign is very good thing. There is nothing moderate or ambiguous about him. And that is one reason why he seems so popular with those Americans who are so annoyed about the present and so downright concerned about the future. Vast corporate power. Small, ineffective government. A great divide between rich and poor. This was America in 1900, was it not? And isn't it what we are mostly talking about in politics today, in the presidential race and beyond?

The good old days! When the federal government had neither the political will nor the legal authority to punish banks for alleged wrongdoing. We just saw evidence of such impotence last week with the Justice Department's retreat from a possible case against Goldman Sachs. The good old days! When corporate power dominated the U.S. Supreme Court. Did you know that the Chamber of Commerce did not lose a single case on the merits at the high court this past term?

The good old days! When government wasn't always around. Never mind the addled federal government. Since President Obama took office, ABC News reported in June, "636,000 state and local jobs have been cut. In 2011 alone, 113,000 jobs were cut in local schools, 68,000 jobs were cut in local government administration, and 78,000 jobs were cut in state government administration, according to a Commerce Department report." This is why our courts are closed and our schools are overcrowded.

The good old days! When minorities and the poor were disenfranchised. Nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, we are back to the days of the poll tax. As Ari Berman and others have so well chronicled, the "voter fraud" measures in Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania are little more than pernicious actions by officials to disenfranchise citizens. Remember Bill Internicola? The 91-year-old decorated veteran of the Battle of the Bulge was told by Florida that he couldn't vote because he wasn't a U.S. citizen.

The good old days! When women had little or no reproductive rights. Forty years after contraceptive bans were voided and abortion rights recognized, the social compact over those divisive rulings is gone. Rachel Maddow wrote in February of the "mainstream Republican embrace of an antiabortion movement that no longer just marches on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade to criminalize abortion; it now marches on the anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut holding signs that say 'The Pill Kills.'"

he good old days! When prejudice and racism did not need to hide their ugly faces. We can lie to each other about this, but please let's not lie to ourselves. What Esquire's Charles Pierce describes as "naked racism" is and will continue to be a huge part of the presidential campaign. "How Racist Are We?," asked a New York Times contributor in June. How racist do we need to be? Last week came news that a conservative group had launched an ad portraying the president as perpetuating racism against whites.

The central question in 2012 is not just how cautiously conservatives want to venture into the future, but how far back into the 20th century independents are wiling to go.

The good old days! When White America's demographic lead looked insurmountable. That is no longer the case. In May, we learned that whites accounted for less than half the births in America for the first time in our history. By 2050, the Census Bureau projects, there will no longer be a white majority in America. There is a direct line between these demographics and the rise of domestic militias and hate groups. But don't these numbers also help explain the rise of anti-immigrant laws and policies?

The good old days! When we humbly believed that there was no scientific connection between human conduct and the weather. Before passage of the 16th Amendment, when the rich could pay a pittance because there was no federal income tax. When environmental protections were subjugated to the zealous search for new energy resources. When the Commerce Clause of the Constitution was construed as narrowly as a bolo tie. When America had a population of roughly one-fourth of what it does today.

And here conservatives surely would add: the good old days! When the funded debt of the U.S. Treasury was $1.5 billion and the deficit was -- well, evidently there was no deficit (or it had just been paid off). There is no dispute we had our fiscal house in better order back then. But debt and deficit figures, unlike most of these other topics, have see-sawed back and forth over the decades. For example, the national budget was balanced, and even showed a surplus, at the turn of the last century.

I list these things not to take a position on the merits but because they help define what's at stake in this election, at every level of government. The list itself -- and the tenor of the political debate so far -- suggest that Romney, Ryan and company already have won the war to frame these issues. The coming battle will largely be fought on conservative turf, with the central question not just how cautiously conservatives want to venture into the future, but how far back into the 20th century independents are wiling to go.

It may still be all about the economy. But Obama's greatest thematic challenge this election is to convince voters that the good old days weren't nearly as good as his opponents claim they were. And that progress, being inevitable, must be carefully managed, not angrily spurned. Here's a spin on the old Santayana quote: It's bad enough to repeat history when you don't learn from it. But what excuse will will have if, as a nation, we repeat history after first gleefully acknowledging that we've learned from it all along?

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