The Etch A Sketch blunder (boy, do I love Mitt Romney and his band of renown, they give us so many gifts) is a reminder that Mitt Romney desperately wants to erase this primary campaign from the minds of voters and go back to pretending to be the moderate he pretended to be while being Governor of Massachusetts. Unfortunately for him, the campaign he has run combined with the New and (Distinctly) Unimproved Ryan-Romney Budget will make that utterly impossible.
The Ryan budget is the most radical, repeal-the-20th Century budget document I have read in 30 years of politics, and Romney's and the entire Republican Party's embrace of it makes it quite literally impossible to Etch A Sketch anything away. They are stuck with the consequences of Romney having been forced to be the lap dog for the further and further and further right wing Republican primary electorate. What Romney's political operatives are fantasizing about is quietly wrapping up the nomination and then moving with stunning speed to the center so swing voters can live with him again, but it won't work. It can't work: Romney's long history as a flip-flopper which makes the Etch A Sketch strategy way too obvious, his right wing base' knee jerk opposition to any hints of moderation makes it impossible for him to drift any distance away from them, and mostly importantly the Romney-Ryan radical budget makes the Etch A Sketch strategy a more epic fantasy than The Lord of the Rings (although not nearly as well written).
Even more than all the pandering right-wing speeches and debates all through the primary, the Romney-Ryan budget forces the nominee Romney into full-out, right-wing warrior territory, no matter how reluctant he is. Having embraced it, he now has to defend it: the Medicare death spiral; the end of defined Medicare benefits, and ever-increasing out-of-pocket costs for seniors; the end of guaranteed nursing home coverage for moderate-income seniors; money slashed from student loans and children's health care and student loans and public schools; the drastic Ayn Randian cuts to all other domestic programs; the wild giveaways to the wealthy and big corporations in ever greater tax cuts -- more tax cuts for the wealthy than there are program cuts in the first 10 years; the walking away from any tightening of the defense budget. Speaking of fantasy, this is it, the all-time fantasy budget of every Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck/Ayn Rand apostle, the wild-eyed dream budget for every defense contractor and oil company exec and Wall Street banker. Check out the numbers just so you know I am not exaggerating: I am not.
Ain't no Etch A Sketch here, Mitt: reluctant or not, you are stuck with being a full time, all out warrior for a vision of America so radical that Ron Reagan would have run away screaming. You may not have any moral qualms from walking away from everything you have ever said you believed, but the politics -- and the policies you have embraced -- don't allow you to be anything but a warrior for the rest of this campaign.
There's a lot of irony here, because Romney's general election opponent is a bit of a reluctant warrior himself. For better or worse (and God knows it has driven me crazy at times), no President since Eisenhower has steadfastly tried to reach out to the opposite party as much as Barack Obama. He reached out to them on the economic recovery bill so much that 40 percent of it was tax cuts. He reached out to them so much on health care that the final bill looks just like Mitt Romney's health care reform in Massachusetts. He reached out to them and cut all kinds of deals during the lame duck session in 2010. He reached out to them last summer on the budget deal, offering cuts in spending that people like me would have opposed. But time and again, the Republicans slapped his hand away, saying it was their way or the highway. And the Romney-Ryan budget is so incredibly extreme, so far past the last bridge they burned down to get there, so much a direct assault on the middle class and poor of this country, that there is no reconciliation available. So the president has now stepped up to the plate, and he has become a warrior for the middle class too.
With these two reluctant warriors, we will have the biggest and most open debate about economic issues -- and even more importantly our most basic American values -- in a presidential election since at least 1936, and arguably maybe longer. Most presidential elections do involve the candidates trying to look like centrists, and these two will certainly be using centrist language to make their case, but their policies are so far apart, this will be a very big debate. The entire country will be drawn into this most fundamental of American debates: will America's future be a social Darwinian, Ayn Rand-like country where selfishness and greed are the virtues worshipped above all others, where the wealthy reap ever more rewards no matter what they did to get their wealth, where the powerful have no holds on their power and the weak are left behind to fend for themselves? Or are we a country where we value each other and believe in our nation as a sacred community, where political and economic power is dispersed widely rather than held by just a few, where the middle class is prosperous and growing again, and where "the least of these" is given a hand up and their children are given a chance at a decent life? Those are the values the Romney-Ryan budget will make the candidates debate.
With the stakes this high, it will be fascinating to watch.