Now, the real race can begin.
When Rick Santorum announced Monday that he was suspending his campaign for president, Mitt Romney became the presumptive Republican nominee in a more official way. But seasoned political observers noticed that the focus of the 2012 presidential campaign began changing several days ago when Romney began directing his comments solely on President Barack Obama and Obama answered in kind.
For an American public tired of negative campaigning, there isn't much good news in this. A vicious in-party fight for the GOP nomination seems to have made a seamless segue into a vicious fight for the White House. Both candidates have wasted little time in throwing negative attacks at one another. The president is casting Romney as a friend of big oil and a man of wealth who is out of touch with average Americans and wants to destroy important federal programs. Romney is defining Obama as an anti-business and anti-investment president who has prolonged hard times by pushing a socialist agenda that kills incentives and stifles job creation.
The truth is this election will present Americans with a choice between two competing philosophies. Republicans generally prefer cuts to expenditures, and reforms to entitlements and tax codes over tax increases. The party's template for this is the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Democrats generally prefer to look for new revenue sources, especially by taxing the wealthy, to keep intact entitlements that are directed toward the poor and needy. Here, the template is the president's own budget proposal. The two sides have been virtually intractable since the 2010 elections divided Congress, with each hoping for a clear mandate from voters this November.
But voters may not hear a lot about the specifics. The fear is that the presidential race will be dominated by simplistic labels and cheap shots that do nothing to address solutions. At a time when the nation's debt has reached levels so alarming a major bond rating firm lowered the nation's credit rating, Americans deserve better than this. Yearly deficits put the nation on a trajectory toward fiscal crisis, and the economic recovery has been proceeding slowly. The race should be all about solutions and about how each candidate plans to work his solutions through a Congress that probably will be as divided as it is now, and about how each philosophy will accomplish its goals.
Romney must find a way to unite his party after a bitter primary fight among rivals, and he has to do this while trying to appeal to a broader national audience. The reluctance of Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul to leave the race makes this difficult, as they are likely to continue attacking him from the sidelines. Unlike four years ago, Obama has not had to overcome challengers within his party. He does, however, have to try to energize the left wing of the party, which feels disappointed that he has not always championed its causes.
Going negative may be the politically smart way to accomplish these goals. While it is true that American politics always has been a messy business dominated by attacks, the stakes this time are so high that solutions ought to be the focus. Anything less would be a disservice.