Most of the eligible voters this year should familiar with the narrative of the presidential race four years ago.
On one ticket, there was John McCain, 72 year old Senator from Arizona who couldn’t raise his arms above shoulder height because of injuries sustained as a Viet-Cong POW.
On the other ticket was Barack Obama, junior senator of Illinois who rose out of obscurity in the Democratic primaries to secure the nomination ahead of Hillary Clinton. He was also black.
Most of us probably couldn’t remember what McCain campaigned for. This is at least partly due to our collective short term memory, but it was also because the 2008 campaign was about more than the specific details of policymaking.
The 2008 race was about any number of things before it was about policy. It was about charisma. It was about race. It was about identity. It was about partisanship—or for that matter, bipartisanship. It was about generational differences. However you choose to remember it, the particular matters of policy weren’t close to being the most important issues.
Mention the 2008 presidential race, and you can scarcely get away without remembering that there was a black man on one ticket and a woman on the other. You think of that hope poster from the Obama campaign. You think of Sarah Palin gaffes and all the hockey mom jokes. Maybe you even recall McCain calling himself a maverick.
Or maybe that’s just how one particular international student chooses to remember a political race that happened in a foreign country at a time when he was too young to vote anyways. (Me)
This race just isn’t the same. It’s about fiscal deficits and cutting government spending. Or at least about a deeply divisive issue on the proper size and role of government. Although there’s a decent debate to be had over the size and role of government, it doesn’t have the same flair that a campaign about race and political identity does.
Moreover, Obama is no longer the young innovative junior senator. By virtue of being the incumbent, he represents the old order—even though that old order isn’t even four years old. If anything Paul Ryan’s nomination represents this election’s new order.
In a time when politics and economics has long been talking about stimulus spending and bail out packages, Ryan is talking about cutting back on government spending and the trickle down effect. Four years after Obama campaigned on hope and reaching across the aisle, Ryan is decidedly campaigning on policy issues.
If anything Ryan, like Obama was in 2008, is running a campaign of paradoxes. Obama, the Ivy League educated law school professor, campaigned on a platform of idealism in 2008—even though his subsequent presidency has shown that he’s much more of a pragmatist. From what it looks like, Ryan—who didn’t go to law school—is a bit of an idealist. His beliefs about trickle down economic theory, individual freedom, and small government seem driven by a particularly fixed set of ideas about human nature.
By focusing the election on policy, the Romney-Ryan ticket is making a sensible move by shifting the campaign away from emotions and into hard political and economic theory. The question remains though, hasn’t the Reagan presidency taught us that trickle down economics don’t really work?