"This debate over budgets and deficits is about more than just numbers on a page, more than just cutting and spending. It's about the kind of future we want. It's about the kind of country we believe in."
That's from the very first paragraph of Barack Obama's big deficit-cutting speech today. If you spent time watching last year's Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign, it probably struck you as rather familiar. This is the Deval Patrick playbook.
Charlie Baker attacked Patrick relentlessly on the budget; the idea was that the state was heading toward a horrific shortfall, and Baker was the one who would go in and make the cuts needed to avert disaster -- while tax-and-spend Patrick would inevitably end up raising taxes, so that he could go on spending.
Patrick's counter was to redraw the choice -- instead of between taxes and spending, he made it between a good future and a bad one. If you just go hacking down the government, Patrick argued, that leads to a Massachusetts where people go hungry, or homeless, or sick. That's the bleak future Baker offers -- I, on the other hand, still believe in a Massachusetts with sunshine and flowers and puppies for everyone.
Patrick laid his bet that the people of Massachusetts were generally optimistic people, not ready to give themselves over to the dark future. He won that bet.
Obama is making the same bet, bigger, for 2012. "This doesn't have to be our future," Obama said today, after discussing the debt problem. "This doesn't have to be the country we leave to our children." Then, discussing the GOP proposal of Rep. Paul Ryan: "These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can't afford the America we believe in. And they paint a vision of our future that's deeply pessimistic."
Obama then went on about the Republican "vision" (repeating the word multiple times), which leaves crumbled roads and collapsed bridges unrepaired, denies college to smart youth, yanks health care from the elderly, denies grandparents their nursing home care, and abandons children with severe disabilities. "[T]his is not a vision of the America I know," Obama said. "The America I know is generous and compassionate; a land of opportunity and optimism."
Oh, and then he read a letter from some guy who still believes in "that great country that my grandfather told me about." Nice touch.
Mitt Romney's campaign slogan, apparently, is "Believe In America." I suspect the other Republicans will have something similar. But if they let themselves get trapped into a debate over the government's budget -- like Baker did -- they're going to sound like people who don't believe in America; who believe that we have to give up all the flowers and ponies and stuff, and live like one of those poor countries with shantytowns and whatnot.
And indeed, the response today, from Romney on down, has been exactly like Baker's was: negative, condescending, pessimistic. The President is out of touch. He doesn't have real solutions for this catastrophe. He must be planning to tax the bejeebus out of you. He doesn't appreciate the seriousness of the problem. In short: we can't have nice things, America.
These Republicans believe, as Baker did, that the voting public cares so much about the deficit that they won't fall for an appeal to their optimism. Obama is betting, as Patrick did, that they are wrong.