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Presidential campaign on cruise control

In the wake of the furor over the Supreme Court's salvation of President Barack Obama's health care act, the presidential campaign seems now to have settled down to the old partisan argument: The Republicans like to call it class warfare, while the Democratsprefer to use terms like income inequity.

Either way, the debate amounts to whether government should jump in to level the economic playing field or get out of the way and let the engine of private enterprise generate sufficient wealth for all. The yardstick for success seems to be the rate of unemployment, currently at an unacceptable 8.2 percent.


Neither side is offering much new to the dialogue. Mitt Romney, the prospective Republican nominee, continues to point to his record as a business giant who fixed the ailing Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and other private enterprises. In making these claims, he also leaves himself open to criticism of his involvement in "vulture capital" that tears down as it tries to build up.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama pursues that Romney vulnerability while accurately if ineffectively harking back to the economic messGeorge W. Bushleft to him in 2008.

With more than a month to go before the party national conventions, the campaign gives the impression of being on cruise control. Or maybe it's more like a pair of prizefighters carefully circling each other, neither willing nor able to land a knockout punch.

Perhaps some unforeseen event, or a major gaffe by one of the candidates, will shake up the current waltz before convention time. But the lull ought not to obscure the significance of the basic clash in political philosophy over the direction of the country that will carry on after November.

The background music over at least the last year, from the anti-government tea party movement on one hand to the Occupy Wall Street clamor on the other, has provided a minor chorus for the confrontation between the foes of activist government and its advocates.

Unfortunately for clarity in the clash, most voters probably don't fall squarely into either camp. They just want the government we have, which right now is impossibly stalemated, to function, addressing commonly perceived public needs. So the two parties tug and pull with methods fair and foul to bring the undecided to their side.

The Democrats had the advantage in this debate, from the days of FDR's New Deal through the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, thanks to a more vibrant labor movement and a growing middle class constructed by working-class policies. But as many middle-class Americans began to identify themselves as stockholders and associate with the Republicans, the class-warfare argument started to break down.

Through the Nixon, Reagan and both Bush presidencies, earlier working-class solidarity for the Democratic Party began to erode, particularly as racial tensions and competition grew in the workplace, giving rise to many Reagan Democrats in blue-collar centers like Detroit. The class-warfare formulation of poor against  rich was no longer clear-cut.

The Bill Clinton years deftly took much of the divisive political clout out of it with more emphasis on centrist appeals and policies. But Mr. Obama's efforts to reach across party lines in his first presidential years got nowhere, as Republican leaders set as their prime political focus getting rid of him. His first-term concentration on health care reform, seen as excessively intrusive by the opposition, guaranteed the head-butting that continues to today.

So, as uninspiring as the clash may seem to voters in this summer lull, it remains at the core of the ideological battle that defines the 2012 election. Mitt Romney continues to assault federal intrusion as the cause of the economic impasse, as Barack Obama defends activist government as the weapon to break it.

Inevitably, the fight is being waged increasingly in the terms of the two men: Who are they really? And do we as voters like them and trust them? And so the negative campaigning on each side goes about its job of tearing the other down. In this sense, President Obama personifies the use of government to level the playing field, While Mr. Romney symbolizes the defender of the private enterprise in which he thrived. The choice for working-class Americans used to be clear. No longer today.

Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at