By Greg Sargent
The Washington Post
Was the 2012 presidential race, which Barack Obama resoundingly won, a contest of big ideas, or was it petty and unchallenging?
Some seem to have concluded the latter. A Politico story Tuesday said that this year’s campaign was dominated by “small” arguments and “uproars over careless but inconsequential remarks by one candidate or another,” and that it was shaped to an “unprecedented” degree by cable and Twitter.
I disagree. This was a contest of big and consequential ideas. Underneath the noise, this election was driven by questions with far-reaching moral and practical consequences:
— What is the nature of our collective responsibility toward one another?
— What is the legacy of the great progressive reforms of the 20th century? Should their core mission — and the safety net they have created — be preserved and expanded to meet the needs of those still left behind by the private market? Or should that mission be readjusted to deal with dramatically different economic circumstances in the 21st century?
— What is the best way to guarantee shared prosperity and economic security at a time of rapid economic change? Should we take collective action to try to guarantee a good life to as many people as possible, and to defend those who are suffering economic harm under the free market?
Such questions about the nature of the society we want to live in were at the core of dust-ups over some remarks by the candidates: the fight over President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment and Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks.
Obama’s claim that the GOP favors “you’re-on-your-own economics,” and his suggestion that the GOP drive to roll back environmental regulations would lead to “dirtier air” and “dirtier water” were derided by some as cheap attacks. But whether we should roll back government intervention in the economy, and the potential human consequences of doing so, isn’t a small question at all.
Discussion of Romney’s vow to repeal Obamacare, perhaps the greatest social reform since Medicare, and debate over what Romney said about covering those with preexisting conditions, were anything but small. It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental argument than one over how — or whether — the federal government should act to protect the sick and vulnerable.
If anything, the technologies that are often blamed for making our campaigns trivial — social media, YouTube, etc. — brought to light moments that triggered consequential debates. And those debates might otherwise not have happened.
Yes, Twitter fights can numb the mind and, yes, the 2012 presidential race sometimes detoured into unbearable pettiness. Ultimately, however, it was an epic campaign — one for the ages.