WASHINGTON -- It's hard to believe that any voter in any swing state hasn't already decided whom to vote for. But it's also hard to believe that any undecided voter isn't terminally confused and depressed by all the TV ads, fact-free spin, and invective.
To cut through the noise, here's an undecided-voters guide to 10 topics that President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are arguing about (though not always in so many words):
1. How full is the economic glass? The central question, of course. The president's record as economic commander in chief is hardly stellar. He's fallen short on several of his promises: on employment, on deficits, on growth. But how much credit does he deserve -- and how much more time should he get -- for digging the country out of the Republican-created hole in which we found ourselves and for putting us on a steady if undramatic upward trajectory (by many indicators)? And what's the better policy path now: Obama's, which looks to the role of government in advancing education, infrastructure, investment in new technologies, worker safety and financial oversight? Or Romney's, which would amplify the Reagan-Bush reliance on lower tax rates and less regulation in the name of the entrepreneurial spirit?
2. Who will be tougher on China? The answer is neither candidate. Romney vows to name China as a "currency manipulator" on Day One, but it is something he can't legally do and it's unrealistic in any case, according to Jon Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China. As for Obama, he has filed some non-earthshaking fair trade cases, but nothing more.
3. Should tax rates be cut for the wealthiest and for capital gains? A stark, simple contrast. Romney says yes, Obama says no. Romney says he'll pay for his rate cuts by closing loopholes and ending deductions. Most experts say there aren't enough of either to make up for the lost revenue. Obama wants to raise taxes on households making more than $250,000 a year -- and is vowing (again) to veto any tax bill or budget compromise in Congress that does not do so.
4. Should responsibility for Medicaid and other programs be turned over entirely to the states? Another clear contrast. Romney says yes, on the theory that states can more efficiently administer them. Obama says no, on the theory that states, most of which must balance their budgets annually by law, will do so on the backs of the poor.
5. Should Medicare offer a voucher option? While the details of the argument are complex, the essence is simple: Are the elderly best served by a universal, government-based program or by defined cash stipends to spend in the private market? The latter would force seniors to pay larger amounts out of their own pockets over time, but it's either that or pay more in taxes, Romney answers.
6. Should Obamacare be abolished? The name of the program is anathema to many voters, but several of its features are well liked, among them the ban on denial of health coverage because of a pre-existing condition. Romney claims that his own plan would keep this feature, but it would do so only for people who already have insurance, not for those seeking it.
7. Should Social Security be converted into a private-investment program? This once was, and presumably still is, a pet idea of Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, and other conservative Republicans. The crown jewel of the social welfare state would earn better returns if people could invest the payroll tax money on their own, Ryan has argued. But Social Security is not really an "investment" program; it is a generational-transfer program. And as the president has asked, what would have happened under Ryan's plan to Social Security payments and balance sheets -- and confidence in the program -- at the onset of the Great Recession in 2008?
8. Who is best (for you) on the social issues of abortion, contraception and gay rights? In recent decades, these have been the starkest contrast points between the parties, and remain so. The president has made it clear that he supports same-sex marriage, federal funding for contraception services and the Roe v. Wade formulation of abortion rights. Romney took a hard line on all three as a self-advertised "severely conservative" candidate in the Republican primaries. He has tried to tack back since then and, to some extent, may have succeeded politically: He's doing better in the polls now among women voters than other recent GOP presidential candidates.
9. Was the federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler a good idea? Obama extended federal loans and guarantees to the two companies as part of a plan to take them through bankruptcy while keeping them largely intact. Romney would not have advanced loans and guarantees to the companies, which most analysts say would have meant their collapse and dismemberment in a court-supervised fire sale. Some pieces might have survived in a new form.
10. Who can end the gridlock in Washington? This is a matter of faith as much as reason. Romney argues that he worked well with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature in Massachusetts, which is true in some cases -- though he would have accomplished nothing if he and the Massachusetts Democrats hadn't been willing to deal. Obama aides say that their man, if returned to the White House, will be freed of the burdens of seeking reelection and open for business. Romney, they contend, would have to immediately pick a fight with his own Tea Party right wing (embodied by Paul Ryan). "You think Romney wants to make fighting with his own his first act?" asked one White House aide. "Don't think so."
For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.
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