(This editorial is reprinted from USA Today, where it first appeared.)
Rick Santorum’s decision Tuesday to drop his improbable quest for the Republican presidential nomination was a swan song of sorts. But it was also a starting whistle for a general election bout pitting President Barack Obama against Mitt Romney that could prove epically nasty.
It won’t be long before unaccountable super political action committees and other outside groups begin turning the airwaves into toxic waste sites of negative advertisements. Total spending on the campaign is expected to top $2 billion.
But before the attacks crank up fully — before the two candidates are demonized as sinister, incompetent and ruinous to the American way of life — it’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on their strengths.
The most obvious thing to say is that the nation could do a lot worse than having a choice between Obama and Romney. They might infuriate the fire-breathers of the left and right, but both have the right temperament and experience for the presidency. As for character, both are highly educated, pragmatic family men. They know their stuff.
This might seem basic. But after the Republican debates and primaries — with multiple unprepared and mercurial candidates surging to the lead, only to fall back amid further scrutiny — such a matchup was not a given.
Obama has shown his chops in steadying an economy that was in free fall and fighting terrorism. As the bumper-sticker summary of his first term puts it, General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC are alive and Osama bin Laden is dead.
Romney has an impressive resume from his time as governor of Massachusetts, his rescue of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and his highly successful career in the private sector.
Contrary to what will be said during the campaign, both candidates are well within the mainstream of American politics. Obama’s oft-attacked health-care law is built on ideas developed by Republican lawmakers and conservative think tanks during the 1990s as an alternative to former President Bill Clinton’s much more sweeping plan. It borrows heavily from the plan Romney developed in Massachussetts.
Romney, for his part, governed from the center, pulling one of the most notoriously liberal states somewhat to the right.
That being said, the two most certainly are not clones, and even if they were, they’d be pulled in opposing directions by their increasingly ideological parties.
Obama has begun an effort to tie Romney to the controversial House Republican budget, which he deemed “radical” in a speech last week. He will run as the protector and promoter of the little guy against the forces of wealth and privilege. Romney, in contrast, almost never misses a chance to argue that Obama is the president of Big Government and excessive regulation. He will campaign on a theme that government is an expensive burden crushing the middle class.
That debate is worth having. It could lead the nation toward fundamental choices it has to make about how to do more with less in an era when 40 cents of every dollar the government spends is borrowed. The candidates’ plans for Social Security, Medicare, health care overall, taxes, defense and other matters are starkly opposed — if only the truth about the choices can penetrate the coming deluge of lies and scare tactics.
In recent months, Obama has begun to sound more reflexively partisan, defending an array of liberal spending programs and downplaying the threat posed by trillion-dollar deficits. Meanwhile, Romney’s depiction of Obama’s presidency has a way of sounding like Chicken Little describing the sky falling.
It won’t, regardless of the outcome. These are capable leaders with contrasting visions. And isn’t that what elections are supposed to be about?