Candidates must advance the debate

Two campaigns this year will define the 2012 elections. Both focus on the issue that has dominated U.S. politics throughout our history: the size and scope of government.

Elections are about clarifying choices and settling controversial issues. By that standard, one of these campaigns has succeeded remarkably; another is failing miserably.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, set out to restructure the role of state government. He faced a huge and growing deficit and an electorate unwilling to pay higher taxes to fund bigger and bigger government. He chose to meet the challenge head on. Walker addressed a part of the budget that was rapidly increasing – state workers’ pensions and health care.

Through their powerful unions, state workers enjoyed health and pension benefits that far exceeded plans available to private-sector workers. Walker moved quickly and courageously, with legislation that required state workers to pay more for their benefits. His bill also cut back collective bargaining rights, to give local officials more flexibility in using manpower and resources.

The unions struck back, tying up the state capitol for months, threatening reprisals and running a series of recall elections against Republican state legislators. They forced a recall election against Walker himself — raising millions to defeat him, and bringing in liberals and national Democrats, to rail against the unfairness of state workers paying more for their benefits.

The contest was hard fought. Walker was candid in discussing and defending his record. Everyone knew what was at stake: the continuation of the reforms he instituted to shrink government. In the end, Walker prevailed with a solid 53 percent of the massive turnout in state that leans Democratic.

That election brought clarity about the proper role of public unions. Other jurisdictions are now talking about addressing the issue, as Walker did. Residents of two California cities, San Jose and San Diego, have voted to cut back union benefits. No longer is union power a taboo subject for local and state policymakers.

This is the way elections are supposed to work.

Turn now to the presidential election. Given President Barack Obama’s oft-stated desire to expand the reach and scope of the federal government, you would think he is anxious to talk about his record in office — including his close to $800-billion stimulus plan; his takeover of the auto and student loan industries, and his “signature” government-run health care plan.

If you thought this, you would be wrong.

Listen to an Obama campaign speech and you hear virtually nothing about his record — how he has expanded government during his four years or why he believes this has resulted in a stronger U.S. economy. Indeed, you might not even know he’s been president for the last four years.

What you hear is a string of negative attacks on anyone who opposes him – Republicans in Congress, conservatives and especially his opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Obama has unleashed his attack machine against Romney, accusing him of shipping jobs overseas and being an out-of-touch member of the 1 percent.

Republicans need to answer these attacks. But they must also not be diverted from speaking clearly about their plan to take America in a different direction than Obama’s “nanny state.” A direction that focuses on jobs, economic growth and opportunity for all Americans.

Politics ain’t beanbag — and national politics can be tough. But elections should be about more than that. They should be about candidates discussing their ideas to solve the huge problems our country faces – the trillion-dollar deficits, the fiscal cliff that awaits us after November, the entitlement programs that will go bust unless addressed. There is a particular responsibility for an incumbent president – who has been in office for four years and is seeking reelection – to discuss his record and what he has done to address our massive economic problems.

Unfortunately, Obama chooses to ignore this responsibility. So this critical national election will not clarify anything or provide any guidance on the way forward. America’s great presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan – were not hesitant to speak clearly to all Americans about the challenges the country faced and how to address them. That’s why 1860, 1932 and 1980 resulted in the end of slavery, the beginning of the New Deal, and the demise of the Evil Empire, respectively.

What possible mandate could Obama claim for anything — even if he were reelected this year?

Ronald Reagan once said he always tried to appeal to our best hopes — not our worst fears. So far this election, Obama has done just the opposite.