Republicans tried to make “We built it” a central theme of the 2012 campaign, capitalizing on President Obama’s awkwardly-put argument that it takes public infrastructure to create successful businesses. But that message was soon drowned out by the controversy over Mitt Romney’s videotaped complaint about the 47 percent of Americans who, by paying no taxes and relying on government handouts, have become wards of the welfare state. Americans recoiled at the elitism and lack of empathy in the candid remarks to wealthy donors, and even Romney recently admitted to Fox News that the comments “did real damage to my campaign.”

Now Obama has taken up the conservatives’ moral challenge in pressing for budgetary and tax fairness. If they mean to have a war over morality, the president seems to be saying, then let it begin here.

We should welcome this debate. In fact, a big reason our political stalemate has lasted so long, I suspect, is that we’ve failed to grapple with these big, important questions. Unfortunately, many of the arguments have been a bit flabby, with both sides taking refuge in easy moralizing.