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The other five Republican candidates--Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann--have been nonstop extreme and occasionally foolish, but collectively they have laid down a serious philosophical marker in this campaign. They have raised the question of the post-Roosevelt welfare state--the regulatory programs initiated by Teddy Roosevelt and the social safety net initiated by FDR. Paul offers this in its purest form: "[The Washington establishment] believes that if you have the freedom to keep what you earn and take care of yourself, you won't do it. They want to do it for you--and they've been trying for the past 70 years, since the Great Depression. But we've learned that government can't do it either."
Although none of Paul's fellow candidates put it as starkly, each has raised an aspect of this essential question: Have we taken the welfare state too far? There seems to be clear agreement among the Republicans that Europe has proved the inefficacy of too much social support and that the Democrats would swing us closer to a European-style model. They've overplayed this hand, positing Obama, a very moderate Democrat, as a crypto-European socialist--or worse, a "Saul Alinsky radical," as Gingrich insists.
When you strip away the silliness, though, the Republicans have waged their campaign around the most important questions facing the country right now: How much government is enough? Should we reform the welfare state? Can we update the clunky apparatus that was built for an industrial, assembly-line era and make it appropriate to our circumstances? How do we support our citizens in a volatile, global economy while encouraging them to take risks and innovate? These are questions that are worthy of a serious presidential campaign, and this memorably goofy crop of Republicans should, against all logic, be congratulated for raising them.
To read Joe's blog posts, go to time.com/swampland