Greatest lib-con showdown in America since the 1960s

by Takamitsu Sawa

The presidential election in the United States is less than two months away. The Republican Party has nominated Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, to run against the Democratic incumbent, Barack Obama.

Initially, Romney tried to appeal to voters as a “center rightist.” He subsequently changed his strategies by emphasizing his position as a conservative. Obama is campaigning as a liberal.

In the U.S., the Republicans are conservatives and the Democrats follow liberal ideologies. This basic confrontation in the American politics between conservatives and liberals can easily be seen by reading Obama’s State of the Union Message or by looking at congressional deliberations.

The primary mission of conservatism, if the term is to be interpreted at its face value, is to preserve social order, traditions and absolute values. Traditionally, conservatives are anti-communists because communists, and socialists for that matter, seek to deny and destroy capitalism, which, in the eyes of the conservatives, constitutes the traditional social order. (For the sake of argument, let us use the term “traditionalism” to describe conservatism in this strict sense of the term.)

A segment of conservatism is called libertarianism; followers attach supreme value to economic and individual freedom, distance themselves from traditionalism — which to them restricts individual freedom for the sake of protecting traditions — and staunchly opposes “big government” for infringing on individual freedom.

The type of big government opposed by libertarians is one that imposes a highly progressive tax on income, spends huge sums of money on welfare and public works projects, issues national bonds to make up for chronic fiscal deficits, and accumulates colossal sovereign debts.

From the libertarian point of view, the concept of big government is rooted in Keynesian economics, which calls for fiscal and monetary interventions by the government as essential means of rectifying economic imbalances and instability arising out of the imperfect nature of the market.

The biggest achievement of Obama during his first term as president was the signing into law of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more popularly known as Obamacare, which aims to provide universal health insurance coverage to all Americans. The medical insurance system in America had long relied on various policies sold by private insurance companies with many options. This left nearly 20 percent of the population without any insurance coverage because they could not afford to pay high premiums.

Shortly after Obama signed the bill, 13 Republican state governors challenged the constitutionality of Obamacare, which obliges all citizens to subscribe to private insurance programs or Medicaid (a health program for low-income people and the physically disabled) with fines for noncompliance. Another 13 governors and five organizations joined the litigation later.

In January 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court started deliberating on the case. The plaintiffs argued that the conservative principles of the Republican Party cannot tolerate government’s requiring citizens to subscribe to insurance policies.

Late in June 2012, the court ruled, in a split 5 -4 decision, that Obamacare is constitutional. In the current election campaign, Romney has pledged to abolish Obamacare as one of his top priorities.

Another point of contention between the two presidential candidates relates to reforming the fiscal and tax systems. While both have the common goal of reducing fiscal deficits, they’re poles apart on how to attain it. Romney pledges to cut back on the welfare budget, to beef up military expenditures and to slash the income tax for all including the wealthy.

Obama, on the other hand, seeks to maintain high levels of fiscal spending for the sake of boosting the economy, reduce the military budget and exclude the wealthy from income tax cuts. Thus a clear distinction exists between a conservative who cares for the rich and a liberal who is more sympathetic to the poor.

The next point at issue is in the diplomatic and military fields. Romney wants to pursue the unilateralism of former President George W. Bush with a tough stance toward China and insists that the U.S. needs to remain militarily the most powerful in the world.

Obama, on the other hand, calls for promoting international cooperation, working closely with the United Nations, reducing arms including nuclear weapons, and working for an early withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

Obama and Romney are also at loggerheads with each other on regulating financial markets. In July 2010, Obama signed into law the Financial Regulatory Reform Act to regulate the risky financial transactions that triggered the global crisis in 2008. This law, favored by liberal economists, runs counter to the fundamental philosophy of the conservatives and has come under fire from financial and other business circles as expected. Romney, who is backed by business circles, has pledged to repeal this law as one of his top priorities.

Not since 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, handed Republican Barry Goldwater a resounding defeat, has the presidential election in the U.S. been fought on such a clear confrontation between a liberal and a conservative. Its outcome is being watched intently the world over.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.