With just a month of campaigning and two presidential debates remaining, let's put on rose-colored glasses. Let's forget the negative images and our darkest forebodings, and look at best-case scenarios.
They might tell us something important about the nominees. They might even, in a political year with few undecided voters, change some minds.
Let‘s assume President Obama wins a second term, and that his re-election keeps Democrats in power in the Senate and Republicans in the House. A sense of crisis beckons, not only because the country approaches the “fiscal cliff,” but also because Mr. Obama’s party seems blind to the coming entitlements crisis.
Social Security and Medicare are in deep trouble and unsustainable in their current form, despite what Democrats say.
Republicans have embraced a proposal that the public finds scary and that deals only with Medicare, not Social Security.
Here is where crisis meets opportunity. A re-elected President Obama uses his State of the Union Address to offer a grand bargain far more sweeping than the one that fell apart during 44 days of fevered but fruitless negotiations last summer.
He tells Republicans he'll put everything on the table, including substantial changes in entitlements, if they'll put everything on the table, including tax increases. He promises to be fair-minded, and says he knows that House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio will be fair-minded as well.
He tells Mr. Boehner privately that he'll quell the catcalls from the left of his party if the speaker quells the demands from the right of his.
Or let's assume Mitt Romney defeats Mr. Obama. His election represents perhaps the most dramatic shift in power in decades. He approaches his challenge with determination, but also with an upbeat, conciliatory attitude. He is a gentleman, and vows to treat his opponents with chivalry.
This goes a long way in Washington.
But Mr. Romney enters the White House with a burden different from the one that weighed down Mr. Obama four years ago.
The man who ran for governor of Massachusetts as a moderate and governed from the center-right is vastly different from the man who won his party's nomination with feet firmly planted on the right.
But Mr. Romney is more manager than politician; that was evident in his awkward mien and his uncanny inability in recent months to master fundamental political arts, such as the artful dodge and the tactful feint.
It is as a manager rather than as a politician that he proceeds, and perhaps succeeds, in the White House.
America's political problem today is at base a management challenge — how to adjudicate between polarized parties and among passionate politicians who see compromise as an indication of powerlessness rather than an act of patriotism.
The new president trims some of his jagged political edges; all presidents do so. But he holds fast to his core principle — that the federal government is poorly managed, and that its current condition is insupportable and irresponsible. From that assessment, all things are visible and, perhaps, possible.
The choice from behind rose-colored glasses remains one between two men of good faith and honor — one with a gift for inspiring speech, another with a gift for the detailed spreadsheet. Both abjure compromise, but both will have to compromise; the political landscape is too complicated to avoid.
Both have plausible ways forward, but narrow openings to succeed. In the end, the choice is between two dramatically different conceptions of government — and two dramatically different ways of moving forward.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.