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From The Vice Presidential Debate of October 12, 2012 AHA Roundtable, a Perspectives Online extra from the October 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

The Debate

John McNeill, October 2012

John R. McNeillThe debate between Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan featured as many foreign policy discussions as domestic ones.  That in itself is mildly remarkable, because typically foreign policy is an afterthought in US campaigns.  The twin priorities of modern states since the advent of Keynesianism – national security and economic growth – dominated the evening’s agenda.  The debate was also remarkable in that both candidates reveled in their Catholic upbringing and faith, and their Irish heritage.  Such a background was once a stigma in American national politics, but now is worn as a badge of honor.   Both candidates, but Biden especially, engaged in a fetishistic worship of an undefined ‘middle class.’  The vocabulary of American politics once included other classes, notably a working class, which seems now to be an archaic term relegated to the dustbin of history.

Among the hundreds of numbers the candidates tossed out, one in particular caught my attention: Ryan mentioned that a Romney administration would achieve 4 percent annual economic growth.  This, if achieved, would be unusual by US standards.  Since 1945 the US economy has grown at that rate for Truman and for JFK/LBJ but for no one else, not Ike, not Reagan, not Clinton.  Since 1900 only two decades, the 1940s and 1960s, chalked up sustained growth above 4 percent.  Since 2000, only one year has seen growth so rapid. 

Longer term concerns of modern states, perhaps more fundamental ones, did not get a mention: the environment, climate change, or energy.   Ryan in passing mentioned his campaign’s intention to achieve energy independence for North America within 10 years.   Energy independence for the US is too difficult a target, not within grasp since 1970.  Energy independence for North America means heavier reliance on Canadian fossil fuels.  Since the turn to fossil fuels in the nineteenth century, very few states have seen fit to seek, and fewer still have found, energy independence.  None, I suspect, have ever sought energy independence for a continent.  When politicians and presidents talk about energy, their propensity for unrealistic scenarios seems at its strongest.   This has been true for more than 40 years, of Democrats and Republicans.  Perhaps, in the circumstances, it is all to the best the candidates left energy out of the discussion.  But in the years ahead, Americans will probably find that politicians have to confront it  Indeed the less they talk about it now, or at least the less they do about it now, the more they will have to do about it later – and the fewer realistic options the country will have.

John McNeill is University Professor, Georgetown University and AHA vice president, Research Division.