In the case of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, part of what underlies the unease is an uncertainty about core beliefs. Every politician will change positions over a career; you’d worry if he or she didn’t. But few have covered as much ideological ground as the former Massachusetts governor: on abortion, stem cell research, health-care reform, gun control, immigration, gay rights, climate change and more.
It may seem a small thing, but when a man who’s been hunting twice can blithely say that he’s been a hunter “pretty much all my life,” it makes people wonder what is real. His attacks on primary opponents Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for revealing even a sliver of pragmatic concern for undocumented immigrants suggested an ethos of winning at any cost and a deficit of principle. The sketchiness of his policy proposals since then only aggravates the concern.
In President Obama’s case, there’s a different sort of disappointment. The country has a pretty good sense of the man by now and generally likes him. But he has not, as many had hoped, fully inhabited the presidency, in the sense of rising above the pettiness and partisanship that he diagnosed so eloquently before assuming office.
Simpson-Bowles is the shorthand for the most commonly cited failing in this sphere, referring to the bipartisan budget deal that Mr. Obama commissioned but then could not bring himself to embrace. That was emblematic of a reluctance to provide leadership, abroad (with Syria, for example) as well as at home.
Is there hope for something bigger, more edifying, more statesmanlike, from the candidates? We’d like to think so.
One reason is that both candidates are men of toughness and intelligence. Mr. Obama has proved as much in office. In the teeth of an economic gale, he helped stabilize the nation’s finances and succeeded in extending health-care coverage to millions of uninsured. His stewardship of foreign affairs, while disappointing in numerous ways we haven’t hesitated to mention, has been sober and thoughtful.
Mr. Romney has a heavier burden of proof, but he comes with an accomplished résumé and an understanding of how to get things done. His selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his running mate, much as we take issue with Mr. Ryan’s fiscal priorities and even his arithmetic, bespeaks an openness to debate entitlement reform that the country badly needs.
And the country needs a serious campaign; it is facing life-or-death questions. Is al-Qaeda dead, or nearly so, leaving the United States free to move on to other challenges, such as China’s rise, or does Islamist radicalism still present a breeding ground for existential threats? Can the United States influence whether the Arab Spring evolves toward greater democracy or toward theocratic rule and sectarian conflict? Can Iran’s nuclear ambitions be cooled peacefully, and if not, do they really justify a war? If so, why, and what would the consequences be?