Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney writes on...

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney writes on a white board as he talks about Medicare during a news conference at Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina. (Aug. 16, 2012) Credit: AP

Gene Wilder delivers a memorable line in the 1971 classic "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" that captures the state of American politics at this very moment in time.

Portly Augustus Gloop becomes lodged in the main chocolate artery of Wonka's plant. A seemingly irresistible force of liquid chocolate builds in the pipe behind him. Something has to give, either the pipeline or the hapless Gloop himself.

Wonka, entranced by the scene, rapturously whispers to no one in particular: "The suspense is killing me; I hope it lasts." (Gloop is then shot through the pipe like a cannonball, at last clearing the thing.)

Fiscally conservative political observers -- those willing to accept such a light analogy -- must empathize with Wonka. The political suspense of the day is killing us, but there is something so excruciatingly delicious about what we are seeing right now that we almost want it to linger.

We find ourselves at the most ideologically heightened moment in memory. On one side we have steadfast budget reformer Paul Ryan -- and his running mate Mitt Romney -- calling for fundamental national spending reform. On the other we have ardently liberal Democrats calling for greater federal entitlements (Obamacare) and employing their tried-and-true "Mediscare" attacks.

This is the time when the Republicans normally run.

But not Ryan. And not Romney. Not this time.

The Republican ticket is holding firm on principle, and all America is watching. No one knows for sure what will happen.

The suspense is killing us in the most exciting way.

The stakes of this presidential election are like none we've seen in a lifetime. Republicans are talking about the very viability of America in the long term. Its standard bearers are voluntarily grasping the third rails of U.S. politics -- the entitlements -- and not letting go. They will either be fried by the exercise and forever deemed foolhardy or empowered by the current. Only time will tell.

The Democrats are treating this not unlike most other presidential elections. They are appealing to demographic constituencies, promising uninterrupted spending -- and warning of Republican budget cuts. They think that's enough to win.

But something feels different this time, and the Democrats haven't adjusted to it. Much of the American public has caught onto the national debt crisis. It knows our entitlement programs, if left unmended, will founder in just a few years. It knows our 40-cents-on-the-dollar borrowing is becoming an existential threat to the country's economy. And many 55 and under know they will have to sacrifice in order to save America's social safety net for another generation.

But in what numbers do they know that? How many under 55 are willing to postpone retirement to help save the Social Security system? Enough to elect a Republican ticket pledging to do deeply unpopular but necessary things?

We'll have to wait and see.

There is one sure way to break the tension of this year's election cycle prematurely. Republicans candidates down ballot can panic and stop telling the truth about the entitlement programs. They can cut and run from Romney-Ryan to try to save their hides under the pressure of Mediscare. If they do that, the national election will almost certainly be lost for the Republican ticket -- but more importantly, this critical moment in history will be squandered.

If they plant their feet with Romney and Ryan, though, and somehow manage to win, a whole new era of courage in America politics may be permitted to emerge -- and as Wonka would say later in the film, "So [would] shine a good deed in a weary world."

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