Rich Lowry argues that the 2012 election really is the most important election in a generation:

There is no presidential election that is not said to be the most important in our lifetime. It was even said in 1996, when Bill Clinton won a decisive but not particularly consequential victory over Bob Dole. But Clinton had been chastened by the Republican sweep in 1994, and in a period of peace and prosperity, the country could afford to debate the meaning of “is.” Now, we are truly at an inflection point, between the Barack Obama and Paul Ryan approaches to government, between consolidation of the past three years of historic government expansion and rollback.

This seems somewhat compelling at first glance, but it doesn’t hold up very well under scrutiny. The reality is that there was a far larger expansion of the welfare state under the previous administration (Medicare Part D), many of the people now posing as the great defenders of limited government, including Paul Ryan and three of the remaining presidential candidates, supported that expansion, and there is no reason to trust that a new Republican administration would not make similar mistakes. There is no reason to believe that the Congressional Republicans that passed Medicare Part D for Bush wouldn’t pass some equally atrocious piece of legislation for Romney. Put another way, “the Barack Obama and Paul Ryan approaches to government” are disturbingly similar once we remember how Ryan approached the expansion of government under a Republican President. Republican victories in presidential elections have not led to the “rollback” of government in the past, and there’s no reason to expect that Romney will be the first to change that.

The likely nominee can’t be trusted to follow through on anything he says regarding health care legislation repeal because he is thoroughly untrustworthy, and everything about his record suggests that he is not the type to undertake major political fights. If Romney won, there wouldn’t be any “rollback.” George Will’s call to focus on Congress and to give up on the presidential election stemmed from his belief that Romney cannot win, but there is an even better argument that a Romney victory won’t yield most of the things that partisans desire. Republicans arguing that winning in 2012 with Romney are “wasting” their victory have a point, but their problem is that the other alternatives (except for Paul) are no more credible. If there were a unified Republican government starting in 2013, there is not much reason to think that they wouldn’t make mistakes similar to those of the Bush era. The record of unified governments over the last decade has not been very good, and Republicans have given the public few reasons to believe that they would not become reliable team players once one of their own was in the White House.

P.S. None of this touches on the virtually guaranteed expansion of the warfare state that would take place under either Romney or Santorum. Unlike the candidates’ pledges to rein in the government domestically, their promises to increase military spending and increase U.S. commitments overseas are much more likely to be kept. The election will effectively be a choice between different kinds and different rates of government expansion, and it is not guaranteed that the Republican candidate will be advocating for the slower rate.