The two parties disagree about a lot of things -- judges, reproductive rights, gay marriage -- which means the baseline stakes of every election are actually pretty high.
But in 2008, sensing its own mortality, the GOP and its partners in the conservative movement recognized they were on the cusp of losing a decades-long fight to dramatically change the terms of the social compact in America.
Because of that, they've been unusually forthright in the years since about how they want to do that. Not completely forthright. But let's be honest, Ryan's budget, for all its flaws and fantasy math, is a far-reaching document, stacked beginning to end with politically unpopular policy proposals.
What that's meant, though, is that at a moment when the country was deluged with challenges that required immediate attention, the GOP committed itself to weakening Obama and ending his presidency, and the parties locked themselves in a much less pressing fight over the shape and scope of big social insurance programs.
It was deliberate and unfortunate and unnecessary, but it's how things shook out -- and this election is therefore to a large extent about resolving that fight one way or another for at least the next several years.
Having Ryan on the ticket will make it difficult for the losers of the election to claim that the winners doesn't have some claim to pursue their fiscal vision. A decisive electoral resolution to this high stakes political fight is actually kind of scary no matter where you come down on issues like Medicare, Medicaid and tax policy. But it'll also be good for the country if it means the government will have new running room to pay at least passing attention to things like mass unemployment and eroding infrastructure that the next president will have to deal with, whether he's a Republican or Democrat.