But Ryan’s role on the ticket turned out to be an early indicator of which party had the upper hand. The great debate over entitlements and the role of the state turned out to consist, at least from the Republican end, of swaggering declarations that they wanted to have a debate. (Ryan: “We want this debate. We need this debate. We will win this debate.”) Ryan did launch an assault against Obama—from the left, lambasting him for having cut Medicare. After an initial star turn, the campaign whisked Ryan from the spotlight. Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Ryan! Catch him again when he returns in 2016!
Another clue came the night of Romney’s greatest triumph: the first debate, in Denver. Romney trounced Obama precisely because he refused to take up the ideological fight. Rather than argue for the freedom-restoring, incentive-jolting power of tax cuts, as he had before, Romney insisted he would not cut taxes for the rich at all and might even increase them. He presented his opposition to Obamacare not as a crusade against socialism but as a tweak, promising to provide insurance for people with preexisting conditions and reminding the audience of Romneycare, once his secret shame. The next night, in an interview on Fox News, he fully renounced his secretly recorded sneering at the 47 percent—the campaign’s most vivid expression of the makers-versus-takers philosophy—after having previously defended it as merely an inelegant expression.
It was a shrewd, necessary concession but one that demonstrated just how unwinnable Romney’s campaign grasped the larger argument to be. Romney pulled close to Obama in the polls precisely because he dulled the philosophical distinction, reducing the points of difference between him and the president to managerial competence and a superior knack for bipartisan negotiation. A wave of endorsements for Romney—by the Des Moines Register, David Brooks, Ross Douthat—explicitly hinged their support on the expectation that Romney would not carry out the program to which he had pledged himself. This was the furthest possible thing from winning a battle of ideas.
If there is a single plank in the Democratic platform on which Obama can claim to have won, it is taxing the rich. Obama ignored vast swaths of his agenda, barely mentioning climate change or education reform, but by God did he hammer home the fact that his winning would bring higher taxes on the rich. He raised it so relentlessly that at times it seemed out of proportion even to me, and I wrote a book on the topic. But polls consistently showed the public was on his side.
Obama’s goal was to prove to the GOP that their rigid defense of the richest one percent was political poison and to force them to bend. For now, at least, their same monomaniacal refusal to increase any taxes on the rich is leading Republicans to deny any connection between the tax issue and Obama’s victory. Numerous Republicans pointed last week to the party’s restrictionist immigration agenda as the source of its dismal performance with the growing (and increasingly Democratic) Latino bloc. But the party’s Latino problem does not rest with immigration law. Polls show that Hispanics are just plain liberal on the main role-of-government questions dividing the parties. More than three fifths want to leave Obamacare in place rather than repeal it; a mere 12 percent agree with the Republican position of closing the deficit entirely through spending cuts. The harsh truth that fend-for-yourself economic libertarianism is a worldview mainly confined to the shrinking, aging white electorate is a reality Republicans prefer not to acknowledge.
Republicans in Congress have been similarly intransigent. Americans “reelected our majority in the House,” Boehner asserted last week, and thus they “made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates.” Never mind that voters clearly indicated the opposite when asked directly by pollsters, or that the GOP’s continued House majority reflects its advantage in drawing up districts comfortably gerrymandered to its benefit.
Of course, what the people want is all fairly beside the point now. What matters in Washington is power and leverage—two things that accrued dramatically in Obama’s favor last week. But it’s not irrelevant that American voters had a chance to lay down their marker on the major social divide of our time: whether government can mitigate the skyrocketing inequality generated by the marketplace. For so many years, conservatives have endeavored to fend off such a debate by screaming “class war” at the faintest wisp of populist rhetoric. Somehow the endless repetition of the scare line inured us to the real thing. Here it was, right before our eyes: a class war, or the closest thing one might find to one in modern American history, as a presidential election. The outcome was plain. The 47 percent turned out to be the 51 percent.