WASHINGTON (AP) — Election Day could well determine how much you end up paying in taxes. It could move the bar for fighting future wars. On energy, it could shape the balance between drill-baby-drill (and mine-baby-mine) and some big pollution controls. If you care about Obamacare, this may be your last, best chance to save it or unravel it — with your vote.
Long after the fuss fades over President Barack Obama's snoozy debate opener and Mitt Romney's weird flub or two, one of them will be hard at work trying to make good on his agenda. This will include pressing any opportunity to reshape the Supreme Court, which hovers over all other issues.
The winner's policies are almost certain to find you where you live, no matter how far you are from Washington in your mind or your place. The taxman cometh. So does the Social Security check for retirees — and the shakier-by-the-decade promise of those checks for everyone else.
Obama's mandate for almost everyone to have health insurance — along with all the coverage protections that flow from that — constitutes the largest reshaping of social policy in generations, with the effects to be felt ever more as the law takes firmer hold in the next few years. If Romney wins and gets enough like-minded people in Congress, he would reset that and try something else.
Though farther from home, the outsourcing of production overseas goes to the heart of American communities large and small as factory jobs vanish, or in some cases come back. Seemingly esoteric subjects like the value of China's currency and the fine print of trade deals affect what you pay for goods and perhaps whether you or the neighbors have work. Less obviously, the debt crisis on a faraway continent affects credit in the U.S. What happens in Greece, Spain and beyond may put your home loan out of reach if the turmoil gets out of hand.
Romney and Obama have sharp differences on these subjects and more, though they don't always make them easy to see. Much of the final leg of the campaign is about reaching for the middle ground. So nothing too radical, please.
For Romney, that means suddenly talking about his interest in seeing Pell grants rise for low-income college students, not about the major changes in government programs that would be required for him even to get close to his deficit-cutting goals.
For Obama, it means preaching fiscal discipline and an aggressive stance on energy production, not focusing on the tax increases for higher-end insurance policies in his health care law or the mercury pollution controls that could shut dozens of coal-fired power plants across the country. Although Obama failed to persuade a Democratic Congress to pass limits he promised on carbon emissions and he shelved a plan to toughen health standards on lung-damaging smog, a second term could give a second wind to steps like these.
Both candidates talk about cutting unnecessary regulation, but Romney's view of what's unnecessary is far more expansive than the Democrat's. That's part of a larger, fundamental and familiar divide between the two parties on the proper responsibilities of government.
Voters, like candidates, can't predict what economic calamity will come out of the blue. But it's clear both from records and rhetoric that Obama believes in the power of government and the Treasury to stimulate growth, add jobs and even save industries in ways that Romney doesn't. On Nov. 6, voters choose governing principles as much as a list of positions.
That holds true on foreign policy, too. At the moment, Romney comes across as more aggressive against Iran and on the conflict in Syria. On Afghanistan, he now supports the president's plan to end U.S. combat in 2014 and appears to have dropped his qualification that a withdrawal will depend on conditions on the ground at the time. Apparently modest differences may come to nothing after the campaign, or they could prove substantive — determining whether the U.S. truly extricates itself from one war and how willing it will be to fight another.
The choice in the election doesn't just matter on the issues the candidates want to talk about. It can matter just as much on the issues they avoid. This is where the Supreme Court comes in.
With four justices in their 70s, there's a strong chance the next president will have a chance to fill at least one seat on a court closely divided between conservatives and liberals. One new face on the bench could mean a major change in civil liberties, gay relationships, gun control, health care, the approach to terrorism, perhaps access to abortion, and more, for years to come.
All told, a lot of tipping points on Election Day. That's democracy for you.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ An overview concluding The Associated Press' "Why It Matters" series, which explores top issues confronting the nation in this presidential campaign season and their impact on Americans