Understood. It's still early. But this year's presidential election will be compelling, revealing a stark contrast between two visions for America. And if ever an election begged for a clear mandate, it's this one.

Understood. It's still early. But this year's presidential election will be compelling, revealing a stark contrast between two visions for America. And if ever an election begged for a clear mandate, it's this one.

Regarding the contrast to be drawn, let's begin with the reconstructed GOP, once moderate, now a party that embraces an ideology that goes well beyond the conservatism of, say, Eisenhower or Reagan or Bush the Elder.

Theirs is now a party that has drifted far right, pushed by the tea party, and growing ever more rhapsodic when contemplating a government the size of a walnut, a government small enough to be dragged into the bathroom and drowned in the tub.

Theirs is a party in the throes of an identity crisis, once again enamored of Newt Gingrich, their prodigal son, who cynically (and in coded language) accuses President Obama of being "the food stamp president" while conveniently ignoring the devastating recession and chronic unemployment resulting in 1 out of 2 Americans either living in or on the cusp of poverty.

Gingrich, his arrogance palpable, has suggested that poor children (doesn't he mean black children?), who lack adequate role models, should learn to work, preferably as janitors at their schools. He has also suggested bringing "activist" judges, with whom he disagrees, before Congress for a scolding. Or ignoring their rulings altogether.

Newt, the Republican bad child, their version of Darth Vader, is now, to the consternation of the conservative establishment, the newly minted winner of the South Carolina primary. It's Newt who presents himself as the only true conservative, a man once lost but who now is found, who was blind but now can see. Redemption is a powerful narrative, so it's not surprising that the party of family values, perpetrators of the moralizing culture wars, has embraced him. No matter that it was Gingrich who called his wife on the phone, then said goodbye to his mistress, and proceeded to deliver a speech titled, "The Demise of American Culture," insisting that America's teenagers were morally adrift. Semper fidelis serially.

Of course, this is the party of "Don't Tread on Me," of righteous indignation and an abiding piety (questioning evolution), a party that rails against "big government" intrusion while suggesting that that same government define and dictate the reproductive rights of women.

The GOP is a party that would eliminate the EPA, calls climate change junk science, and believes that we can drill and frack our way to energy independence while denigrating sustainable energy sources such as solar and wind.

Republicans promise to eliminate all regulations so free enterprise can work without constraint or oversight (isn't that called Darwinian or predatory capitalism?). Meanwhile, they take no responsibility for the policies that drove our country off an economic cliff, while insisting that unregulated greed is good, trickle-down economics works. If that were the case, Obama would have inherited a government with a budget surplus and full employment, not an economy hemorrhaging 750,000 jobs each month and requiring massive bailouts of the financial markets.

Theirs is a party that believes in replacing Medicare and Social Security with savings accounts that can be invested in, say, the stock market while suggesting that old folks negotiate with insurance companies for their care. Meanwhile they claim that the Affordable Health Care Act, which attempts to address the fact that there are close to 50 million citizens now uninsured, is rampant socialism (and that is defined how?), or portends the Europeanization of America while increasing the deficit (the Congressional Budget Office found that the act will decrease the deficit).

Theirs is a party that promises to pass a constitutional amendment declaring that marriage shall only be between a man and a woman (is this not "big government" intrusion?). They, the party of Lincoln, seem unable to recognize that this violates the civil rights of a significant number of Americans.

Theirs is a party that claims it can bring back full employment to America because, well, they understand business and the private sector. America is a large for-profit corporation and the president is, simply, its CEO.

As if. Actually, America is a not-for-profit nation. Entrepreneurial to be sure; however, it's also committed to the common good (or was), historically creating public parks and roads and schools while funding agencies that protect our health and welfare and safety. Selling their business acumen as a panacea is a scam.

Meanwhile, Romney — the party's default slugger when someone like Newt isn't swinging for the cheap seats — waxes poetic about saving the soul of America, an ontological statement that really begs further clarification. But that clarification will have to come from the same party that says, in all seriousness, "keep big government away from my Medicare."

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.