In the home stretch of the election, Mitt Romney has been racing back to the “moderate” center in an attempt to woo the swing votes of suburban women. This is not exactly a surprise. Despite the Democrats’ complaints that this isn’t the “real” Mitt Romney, we all know that it is. He is what he has always been: a pragmatist.
Which is to say that he’s a politician.
To be sure, different politicians are influenced by different philosophies. Obama was born into the pieties of academic Marxism, Mitt Romney was born into middle-of-the-road moderate conservatism, Paul Ryan cobbled together his philosophy from an odd mixture of Ayn Rand and Catholicism. These influences have very real consequences and make for important differences between the candidates. But whatever other philosophy may have influenced him, the real official philosophy of a politician is pragmatism: saying and doing whatever is necessary to adhere to the social consensus and get as many votes as possible. His philosophical background just influences the flavor and direction of his pragmatism.
Which is to say that we often expect too much from politicians. They are not philosopher-kings. (Thank goodness, given the current state of philosophy.) They necessarily reflect what the voters want. So it’s up to us to influence the political debate and change public opinion so as to move the politicians in the right direction. In a republic, we the people are the real leaders.
Radio host Joe Thomas, on whose show I sit in every Thursday afternoon, cites the example of Virginia’s 5th-district congressman Robert Hurt. In the 2010 Republican primary, Hurt was considered the “establishment” candidate who was nobody’s choice as a standard-bearer for the Tea Party. I know, because I moderated a Tea Party-sponsored debate in Charlottesville, which Hurt skipped, leaving his rivals to take potshots at him from the right. But how has Congressman Hurt performed once he took office? Here is how the Wall Street Journal sums it up: “Early on, some Tea Party groups considered Hurt insufficiently conservative and part of the GOP Richmond establishment…. Since his arrival in Washington, Hurt’s voting record has been much more to the Tea Party’s liking.” I don’t doubt that some of this is due to genuine ideological sympathy, but it sure helps that Hurt also has a substantial electoral interest in staying on the good side of the small-government activists.
All of this is a long way of saying that the election isn’t just about them, it’s about us. It’s not just about the candidates. It’s about the American people.
Specifically, this election is about what the American people expect and what we’re willing to accept.
The basic re-election pitch of the Obama campaign is that this is as good as it gets. As Bill Clinton put it at the Democratic Convention, “No president—not me or any of my predecessors—could have repaired all the damage in just four years. But conditions are improving and if you’ll renew the president’s contract you will feel it.” Never mind that plenty of past presidents have done better, most notably Ronald Reagan. Yet some voters have been receptive to this argument. Earlier this year, National Journal political reporter Ron Brownstein described the mentality of Obama voters: “Those sticking with Obama believe that he’s produced all that can be asked against the headwinds of a turbulent new normal. Ironically, if the candidate of hope from 2008 survives, it may be partly because many Americans, after a grueling decade, view both the presidency and the economy with lowered expectations.”
So the candidate who rose to the presidency on the slogan, “Yes, We Can,” is now running for re-election as the candidate of lowered expectations.
This is the most dangerous, most alarming thing I’ve heard in the entire election. You can see what I mean when I say that it’s not about them, it’s about us. Behind all of the specifics of public policy, and behind even the big ideological issues, we face a basic question about the American sense of life: whether we accept failure and stagnation as the “new normal.” It’s about what we think about America’s potential for growth, for prosperity, for continued future vitality.
The candidate who thinks that the current state is acceptable will not be focused on making it better and won’t be likely to change his policies if they’re not working. Instead, he will focus on other priorities. In the first year of his administration, when the top priority was to enable a strong economic recovery, instead President Obama exploited the crisis—why let it to go to waste?—to push for the longtime Democratic goal of a government takeover of health care, pushing out private insurance and private profits. And in the final months of his campaign, as sluggish economic growth has become a campaign issue, the president has been telling us more about his plan to tax the rich than about his plan to revive growth. Why? Because that’s his real priority. His agenda is not about growth, prosperity, success. It’s about equality, redistribution, control.
On the other hand, we have a candidate who believes in American greatness, who thinks a vibrant, prosperous society—the kind in which he made his fortune—is the real normal, and whose best moments on the campaign trail come when he is preaching the American gospel of success. Mitt Romney is the one who is now implicitly running on the slogan, “Yes, We Can.”
I remember encountering this feeling once before, when I was very young: the sense of decline, of stagnation, of a “new normal” of lowered expectations. This is what Americans were told to accept in the late 1970s, after Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and the Iranian hostage crisis. In a rebellion against decline, the nation voted out the small, dour man who sat in the Oval Office and took a chance on a charismatic optimist who talked about America as a shining city on the hill. Four years later, it was morning again in America. Ten years later, we stood triumphant as the uncontested model for prosperity and success.
This was partly because of the specific policies championed by Ronald Reagan. But it was also because of the basic choice Americans made in voting for him: the choice not to give up.
Not every nation rises to the occasion when it is asked to decide that question. As they say, decline is a choice, and some nations have chosen it. But America has risen before to the challenge of national renewal, and we must do so again on Tuesday.
Vote for Mitt Romney, but more than that, vote for America.