Believe me when I underline that I take no pleasure in saying this, but Adam Davidson is mostly right. There are differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on a host of issues, and the candidates would be happy to tell you all about them. On most of the core economic issues, however, the candidates aren’t offering plans that are all that different. This is due to a Republican candidate obscuring more than he reveals, and a Democratic candidate unwilling to stretch beyond the mild incrementalism of the Washington consensus.

For someone who lived in the first 150 years or so of this country, it might be hard to see what’s so different about the economic policies of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Romney seeks a 25 percent top corporate tax rate, and Obama is proposing 28 percent. Romney wants to eliminate capital-gains taxes for the typical investor and leave the rate at 15 percent for higher earners. Obama wants to increase it to 20 percent. They differ on how to tax the highest incomes. But for most Americans, the distinctions might be mistaken for a rounding error. Both men strongly support expanding free trade and maintaining close to the same level of Social Security and welfare benefits. Neither has any specific plan to radically change the way we regulate business, the environment or the workplace […]

As nasty as the campaign has been, Romney has struggled to convince voters that he’s all that different from the current Coca-Cola. That’s largely because Obama has avoided the potentially divisive issues, like more stimulus and a broader overhaul of financial-market regulation, that many economists urged during his term. The Romney campaign has had trouble deciding whether this election should be positioned as one of historic decisions — capitalism versus socialism — or if it’s better to ask the smaller question of who can better manage an economic recovery in an age of broad consensus.

Davidson is not completely correct. I’m not sure that a 20% difference in tax rates – the difference between Romney and Obama’s tax plans – is all that minor. And if you could pin down the Romney campaign on Medicare, I think you would see their plan as quite different from Obama’s (though both assume the exact same rate of growth in the program – GDP + 0.5%).

But this is generally true, and it represents both sides shifting to the middle for the general election. For Obama it wasn’t that much of a jog. We have heard a lot about the “great debate” in this election, between two fundamentally different choices for where to take the country. That debate exists, but not in the Presidential election. The most prominent representative of the radically different vision on the right, Paul Ryan, has been completely neutered by the campaign. He has this impossible task on Thursday to talk about these mild, unassuming tweaks to economic management while burdened with his history as a radical transformer of the social safety net. And on the left, there is nobody in a prominent position arguing the left pole of that debate. Representatives of that approach, advocating for a greater safety net and more stimulus and breaking up the banks, are nowhere to be found at the national level. Paul Krugman has been reduced to yelling at the Obama campaign over the possibility of cutting Social Security and Medicare after the election.

So there is a great debate to be had, but obfuscation and a refusal to take up the position of what’s best for the economy has led to that debate turning into a muddle. Large swathes of economic thought in the country have no purchase in this election. It makes for difficulty for those who every four years want to posit the election as “the most important of our lifetime.”

David Dayen

David Dayen

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