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The most important election of a lifetime? So say Gingrich et al.

As Gingrich faces Romney in Florida, he calls 2012 the 'most important election of our lifetime.' Sometimes he compares its significance to the pre-Civil War era. GOP rivals like Santorum and key Democrats like Pelosi are also gasping about the stakes. Time to catch our breath.

By John J. Pitney Jr. / January 30, 2012

Republican presidential candidates, from left, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Ron Paul stand during the National Anthem beginning a debate at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., Jan. 26. Mr. Gingrich calls this "the most important election of our lifetime."

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

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Claremont, Calif.

Newt Gingrich sometimes refers to 2012 as "the most important election since 1860," which set the stage for the Civil War. His Republican competitors are a bit less flourishing in their comparison, describing November as the vote of a lifetime (though Mr. Gingrich also uses that phrase). Across the political divide, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi agrees: It's "the most important election of our generation."

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If such descriptions sound familiar, it's because Americans hear them every four years. "This is certainly the most important election in my lifetime – not just because I'm running," said Barack Obama to a Wisconsin crowd early in 2008. Democrats and Republicans applied similar language to the Bush-Kerry contest. In his 1976 campaign against Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford said, "Make no mistake – this election will decide the direction America is going to take in its third century of independence."

So every presidential race is the most momentous in modern times – until the next one.

Elections do matter, of course, because presidents make key decisions, especially about national security. Some elections matter a great deal. The 1800 fight between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson ended in the first transfer of national power from one party to the other. Sixty years later, Abraham Lincoln's victory prompted the secession of 11 Southern states, which in turn led to the Civil War. These elections shaped our national identity and profoundly influenced our political culture.

Most presidential elections aren't like that, however. The selection of candidates seldom entails a choice between radically different world futures. True, today's competitors campaign on big topics, including what will happen to social safety-net programs, such as Medicare. But the possibility that this election will pivot the country in a radically new direction is not as great as voters may think.

A president is not a monarch with unlimited power. The authority of the office is subject to the constitutional checks of federalism (sharing power with the states), bicameralism (the two houses of Congress), and the separation of powers between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches.

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