(Note: This article will appear in a special Summer-Fall issue of American Experiment Quarterly, published by the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis, http://www.amexp.org/)

If passion and rhetoric made presidential elections “pivotal,” the 2004 battle would qualify. We’re surely in for one of the nastiest and most partisan campaigns in U.S. history. Politics, however, is the one corner of life where smoke doesn’t mean there’s fire. Big and ever-growing government brings forth deep passion and fiery rhetoric for reasons other than real differences in philosophy or policy. Whoever is in charge for the next four years will have a lot of power over $10 trillion or more of other people’s money.

In every presidential election in my lifetime, somebody – usually the preponderance of pundits – has claimed the contest is “pivotal,” “critical” or in one way or another the most important political event in living memory. Sadly, we’re usually faced with the prospect of leaving a soiled diaper on a baby and just changing the safety pin.

I wish it weren’t so. I love a spirited political rivalry based on substance. As one who believes that the size and role of government dwarfs other issues, I long for a presidential election in which you know in your heart that government will get bigger under one candidate and smaller under the other.

This is what really makes a presidential election “pivotal” – viable options, starkly different; clear-cut philosophical and policy distinctions between the major candidates, plainly evident to all; good reasons to believe that electing this candidate instead of that one will make an unusually big difference in the course the country takes in coming years.

Based on what we know now, it appears that this year’s election does not measure up to the significance of the elections of 1800 (Adams vs. Jefferson), 1828 (Adams vs. Jackson), 1860 (Lincoln vs. Douglas, Breckinridge and Bell), 1912 (Taft vs. Wilson and Roosevelt), 1932 (Hoover vs. Roosevelt), or even 1980 (Carter vs. Reagan). Those were pivotal elections. Americans voted, and big changes followed.

The differences between Bush and Kerry range from moderate to substantial on many “social” issues, such as abortion and gay marriage. Kerry’s court appointments would likely be more liberal than Bush’s. Under Kerry, American foreign policy would be more accommodationist and consensus-seeking, a problematic shift that carries its own set of risks. But public opinion and the likelihood of a Republican Congress would work to restrain the extremist tendencies of a Kerry administration.

Under either Bush or Kerry, the federal establishment will grow. The present administration has delivered stunningly huge increases in domestic spending. Bush seems likely to go down in history as the first president in a century to veto nothing in his first term.

Republican Congresses seem interested in spending restraint only when a Democrat sits in the White House. So even though Kerry promises more new federal spending than Bush, the track record suggests we will actually get more if Bush is re-elected.

If Bush delivers some form of Social Security privatization – an unfulfilled promise from the 2000 campaign, and something Kerry would never countenance – we might someday look back and assess the 2004 contest as more important than it now seems. Allowing citizens to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in personal bank accounts, stocks, or bonds would make good policy sense and strengthen personal responsibility.

But if history is any guide, a re-elected president will have only the two years before the mid-term elections to make big changes. Unfortunately, in the last four years, Bush did little to prepare the country for a major overhaul of Social Security.

A pivotal election? I hope post-November events make it so. In the meantime, I’m not encouraged.

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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.