Every election year, both parties' activists get hyped and begin to tell their fellow partisans that this is the most important election ever. And you know what? Every single election matters. They all have long-lasting effects in a variety of ways: They all change the political narrative of their moment in time, and they all mean the reinforcement of certain values and the rejection of others. But it is also true that some end up mattering a whole lot more than most. The elections of 1800, 1828, 1860, 1932, 1980, and 2000 turned out to be profoundly important in American history. They fundamentally changed the country for all time.
It would only be known later what a big deal some of these elections would become. In 2000, for example, it was a pretty mellow year of peace, prosperity, and federal surpluses as far as the eye could see. Bush's campaign that year was built around the idea of downplaying his differences with Democrats and sounding like a low-key moderate who would work closely on many issues with Democrats. Only later would it become obvious how big a change Bush wanted to make, with his massive tax cuts and plans for war with Iraq. But in some of these elections, many people at the time could feel the importance of the moment coming like one can feel a freight train coming down the tracks. No one quite knew what to expect if Thomas Jefferson unseated John Adams in 1800, but they knew it would be a big deal if the governing party were thrown out of office. In 1860 people were pretty sure there would be some kind of civil war if Lincoln were elected. In 1932 the country was unraveling before everyone's eyes, and people understood that the next president would have Earth-shaking decisions to make.
2012 feels like the kind of election that is both a very big deal and feels like one. The two parties are both eagerly taking on a fundamental debate about economic policy and the nature of government itself. The Republicans are betting that because of the continuing weakness of the economy, and because of their own willingness to obscure what they are proposing by saying that they are just trying to save programs like Medicare, they can win the debate. The Democrats have come to realize that in order for them to be the winners, they need to make a full-throated defense of the programs they have historically held dear: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
To win, Democrats are going to have to be -- and are becoming -- more and more specific about why these programs work and why they need to be defended. Here's a great clip from Joe Biden on the difference between Obama-Biden and Romney-Ryan on Medicare:
And here's the new ad Democrats just put out on Medicare:
Here's Biden going further than any leading Democrat in recent years on Social Security: "I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, ther will be no changes in Social Security. I flat guarantee you."
The Republicans are going in the opposite direction, rhetorically. Knowing that their plans are to privatize, voucherize, and slash Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, they are downplaying, distancing, or generalizing their discussions about their proposals. But just as Bush's mild, moderate messaging in 2000 didn't slow him down from his more radical agenda, it is clear that if the Republicans beat the Democrats after putting these plans out and after we've run against them, they will drive them down our throats no matter how unpopular the details of their proposals are. If Social Security is privatized, Medicare is voucherized, and Medicaid is block granted, the safety net guarantees for seniors, the poor, and the disabled in this country will be gone.
Talk about an important election.
The Democrats have joined the debate. The battle is raging. This is, as my old boss Joe Biden might put it, a Big F*cking Deal.