Taxes, spending and jobs dominate the conversation in Washington, but there is a great deal more at stake in next year’s election, as Republicans know well. It sometimes seems as if they are the only ones who talk about their values, but they put forward an elitist and narrow vision that largely favors the upwardly mobile, the healthy, the native-born American and the needs of the corporation.
This cold message is disguised, of course, cloaked in warm-sounding talk of solid American traditions and values. Democrats, including President Obama, have shied away from these issues or have been too late and too weak in providing voters with an alternative vision, with their own larger goals for the nation.
In the last few days, however, Mr. Obama has finally begun to broaden his challenge to Republicans. He is taking on their obeisance to wealth and refusal to reanimate the economy, as well as their callousness. “This is a contest of values,” Mr. Obama said on Sunday. “This is a choice about who we are and what we stand for. And whoever wins this next election is going to set the template for this country for a long time to come.”
The Republican template has been in stark view at presidential debates lately. It is a program to wind down the government’s longstanding guarantee of health care to the elderly and the poor and incinerate the Democrats’ new promise to cover the uninsured; to abolish the Department of Education and its effort to raise national standards; to stop virtually all regulation of the environment and the financial industry; to reimpose military discrimination against gays and lesbians, deport immigrants, cut unemployment insurance and nutrition programs, raise taxes on the poor and lower them for the rich.
The candidates who pander to their party’s lowest instincts are often egged on by the heartlessness of audience members at the debates. “Has anybody been watching the debates lately?” Mr. Obama asked in San Jose, Calif. He added: “You’ve got audiences cheering at the prospect of somebody dying because they don’t have health care and booing a service member in Iraq because they’re gay. That’s not reflective of who we are.” (Mr. Obama might also have mentioned the lusty cheers for Gov. Rick Perry’s record of presiding over 234 executions in Texas.)
There are many voters who are understandably dispirited or disillusioned with the Democrats. They might consider following a presidential suggestion and spending an evening or two watching the Republican debates. The Democrats lose their nerve at times. They are divided and factionalized and unsure, but they largely do not share what Mr. Obama called “a cramped vision that says you’re on your own.”
In making this long-overdue statement of contrast, Mr. Obama is animated by more than his own re-election. Should he be returned to office along with Republican majorities in the House or Senate, the country will have to endure years more of torturous partisan battles, as many or more steps backward as forward. At every level of the ballot, Republican candidates should be asked if they really want this to be a country where we’re all on our own.