Despite all the hooplah about prom night at the joint session or which party is being true to the Constitution -- the big story last night was the contrast between views of the future articulated by the speech givers. Forget Republicans and Democrats and simply ask: Which attitude towards the future is best?
President Obama's message was simple: Does the future inspire us, challenging us to grow individually and as a nation, and step up to challenges previously thought impossible?
Congressman Ryan's message was equally straightforward: Does the future frighten us, forcing us to grab what we can for ourselves right now, run home, lock our doors, and yearn for a simpler time free of the burdens of the modern world.
"Win the future" or "fear the future" -- that was the choice Americans heard last night.
And each one of these choices is brought on, again, by starkly contrasting visions of the economic problem that has forced us to this moment of decision -- this moment of action. What will we do, which actions will we take in relation to the future based on this historic economic problem as defined by each speaker?
For President Obama, the key problem we face is that American has not invested enough in education, innovation and infrastructure to put our economy on footing with other nations that have. It is the classic problem of competition. In his speech last night, President Obama defined this generation's "Sputnik moment" in terms of seeing China and India leap ahead of in the budding green energy sector because they made key investments in education, innovation, and infrastructure.
For Congressman Ryan, the key problem we face is that America has borrowed too much money to shore up the economy during the recession. For Ryan, because the Federal government has borrowed so much money, it has put us on footing with other nations that have already defaulted on their national debt. If we do not pay down this debt, today -- our credit card bill moment, so to speak -- then the country will be forced into a hard period of austerity, meaning radically higher taxes.
"Sputnik" moment vs. bankruptcy -- inspiration vs. fear.
Finally, both speeches offered a very clear contrast between the kind of America we would get if we reacted to the economic problem they defined and stepped into their vision of the future.
For President Obama, a future brought on by investments education, innovation and infrastructure, would be faster, smarter, and more convenient. We would go to work on high speed rail, our children would be the best at science and math, and America would be the leader in the key industries driving the world economy: new energy and high tech. Ambitions are high, wealth has been restored.
For Congressman Ryan, a future brought on by defunding most of the Federal government would be simpler, more family oriented, and more in line with nineteenth-century ideals. It is a vision of small towns filled with white picket fences, where children are happy at home and able to enjoy the simple goodness of a life unfettered by inter-generational compacts. Taxes are low, horizons are near.
If Americans can cut through all the false claims about the Constitution and distractions about inter-party civility brought on by the last year of politics, last night presented one of the clearest contrasts not so much between the parties, but between attitudes towards the future -- the strongest contrast we have seen in decades.
Are we a nation that fears or embraces the future? Do we see ourselves in 50 years through the lens of a Norman Rockwell painting or a James Cameron film? Do we embrace or run from the future?
Hard to imagine a more useful contrast or a more productive evening of political theater.