New Hampshire’s results as predicted, explained and questioned

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Here’s a riddle: What happens when you get a curmudgeonly socialist and a snarly capitalist – two ideological polar opposites – each running for president of the United States in the nation’s first primary contest? Answer: Victory for both.

Democrat Senator Bernie Sanders’ 22-point victory over former Secretary of State and former New York Senator Hillary Clinton, and Republican businessman Donald Trump’s 19-point victory over Ohio governor John Kasich this past week in New Hampshire is puzzling to political pundits and pupils who have studied the 2016 presidential contest since its earliest days.

Their respective victories have cast chaos in this electoral season which is a reflection, if not manifestation, of the chaos in the electorate. Voters are weighing two polar values: equality and freedom. Fundamentally, Americans are now asking this question: what is the role of government in these values? This election is about those big ideas.

But the Fat Tuesday primary results, however, were predictable and are explainable.

Washington Post columnist and television commentator George F. Will, with a sort of clairvoyant clarity, saw this coming nearly five years ago. In February 2011, at the U.S. Naval War College in a lecture entitled “The Political Argument Today,” he set the philosophical framework from which voters today are acting upon by way of the ballot box.

Will made simple and powerful distinctions between the liberal (today known as progressive) arguments of equality and the conservative arguments of freedom as the basis for the intensity of today’s political debate, all in name of the pursuit of happiness.

The progressive position is that equality must come in the form of outcomes, not just opportunities. Thus, government is the best, if only, mechanism to engineer such desired results. And government must destigmatize dependency and continue sustaining dependency on the government itself, thereby perpetuating the progressive doctrine.

The conservative position, conversely, is that individual freedoms are paramount (modern, market driven economies; limited government) and are the real engines of progress for citizens not just being better off, but being better.

These are valid arguments, Will surmises, made by spirited men and women of high civic virtue. And these arguments and ideas now perceived as log jammed in Washington, D.C. where an impatient and angry electorate senses gridlock and is now demanding radical change.

So Sanders and Trump, for now, are the embodiment of this fluster and furor.

Whichever party – Democrat or Republican – wins the argument in November will ultimately change the nation’s character in this young new century.

This happened a century ago when President Woodrow Wilson’s progressive agenda would set the tone for the 20th Century (where individualism and self-reliance gave way to dependency and a vast welfare state).

But the so-called Reagan Revolution in the 1980s gave rise to the hope of dismantling much of progressivism’s governance and ideology with conservatism. These are the roots of today’s national debate.

Will suggested that the welfare state should be the centerpiece of the debate given its implied permanence (the combination of “competent medicine” and “protracted retirement” further extend government’s social contract and safety net) and its imperiling realities (Medicare and Social Security are massive and largely unfunded).

Two momentous events since President Obama took office underscore Will’s point: 2010’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) and 2013’s Detroit Bankruptcy, both by-products of the welfare apparatus.

The ACA expanded an already over-extended federal government into the very personal arena of medicine, which demands competency, currency and efficiency, none of which are hallmarks of today’s government. The ACA will affect every American sooner or later yet receives surprisingly scant attention in the presidential contest.

Detroit (the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history) exposed the incompatibility of maintaining large, overly generous unfunded pensions while managing an avalanche of debt obligations. Many municipalities face this dilemma (see Central Falls, RI), and many public employees will realize that government promises (state and local) will eventually be broken as taxpayers and bondholders wrestle with pensioners for equitable solutions. No one running for president dares to mention that there are limits to public fiscal largesse.

Will expressed concern that “we are not governing our appetites … not bringing our desires and our resources into anything like adult balance.”

As Sanders, Trump and other candidates march to South Carolina for the next primary, which adult will emerge to seriously address and engage the public about questions of equality and freedom, critical components to this campaign?

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and a former Cape Cod Times columnist. Read his past columns here.