As the presidential campaign finally takes off with the party conventions, there seems to be only one point Republicans and Democrats agree on. This election will be about job creation and the role of government. But having defined this battlefield so clearly, neither side seems to have any credible ideas for dealing either of these supposedly decisive issues.
Let’s start with government. The Republicans claim to want smaller and less intrusive government. Yet they vehemently demand tighter government controls over abortion, immigration, marital arrangements and sexual behavior. On other politically less salient issues such as drugs, prison reform, alcohol use by young adults and doctor-patient privacy, Republicans consistently support government intervention, sometimes to a bizarre degree. For example, a law signed in 2011 by Florida’s Republican governor (though struck down promptly by federal courts) made it a crime for pediatricians to tell parents that they could endanger their children by keeping a loaded gun in their home.
The Democrats’ vision of government is equally paradoxical, but in the opposite direction. The Democrats, like left-wing parties in Europe, laud the economic role of government, and especially its importance in supporting public goods and regulating business abuses. But they deny the right of government to regulate, or even try to influence, private behavior, even when it impinges on community life in such areas, for example, as marriage, child-rearing or trade union activity, especially in the public sector.
In short, the left’s faith in government suddenly evaporates when it comes to social and lifestyle issues, while the conservative passion for smaller and less intrusive government only applies when money and economics are at stake.
Which raises the second, even more important, electoral issue — jobs. Mitt Romney has promised “a singular focus on job creation” and has accused Barack Obama of wasting his presidency on healthcare instead of creating jobs. The paradox is that when they are not attacking Obama for failing to create employment, conservative politicians insist that government has no positive role whatsoever in creating jobs — whether by hiring public-sector workers, supporting failing banks or auto businesses, or expanding fiscal and monetary policies to stimulate demand. Such is the conservative aversion to any government involvement in job creation that Senator Bob Corker, a leading Republican economic thinker, has even proposed legislation to remove employment from the legal objectives of the Federal Reserve.