My recent post-mortem on the Romney campaign is up at RealClearPolitics. But the point of this post-mortem is not to look backward. It is to enable us to look forward. After thinking about it a little more I can sum up the implication for the future in these terms: we desperately need champions for free markets. We need them more badly than we might have realized, and that is what should determine our thinking about the leadership we need, not just in next presidential campaign, but on all levels.
Or to put the conclusion in somewhat different terms, what the final numbers show us is that demography is not destiny, contrary to the claims of some on both the left and the right. Contrary to those on the right, the “makers” are not yet being overwhelmed by the “takers.” Contrary to those on the left, automatic voting blocs of ethnic minorities and the young are not inevitably growing to stamp out the old conservative fogies. (More on this separately later.) In reality, Mitt Romney was not overwhelmed by Obama’s demographics but underwhelmed by a failure of turnout among Republicans, conservatives, and right-leaning independents.
As one of my readers summed it up for me, the next election will still be ideological. Which means that we need someone capable of fighting an ideological battle.
This year’s campaign is a warning of what happens when we don’t have that. I remember at the Republican convention when Paul Ryan promised that he and Romney would take the issue of entitlement reform head-on, proclaiming that “we want this debate, we will win this debate.” And then we never had that debate. The Romney campaign addressed the issue just long enough to reassure assure elderly voters that it wasn’t going to take away their Medicare and Social Security, and then dropped it. It remains to be seen how much this is Ryan’s fault—his disavowal of Ayn Rand was a not a good sign—and how much of it was imposed on him by the ticket he was running on. It would not be the first time a vice-presidential candidate has been recruited because of his strength on a particular issue, and then never allowed to talk about that issue in the actual campaign.
All of this was percolating in my mind when I read an interesting piece by Ross Douthat, the token conservative columnist for the New York Times, on the departure of Jim DeMint from the Senate to head up the Heritage Foundation.
DeMint’s reason for leaving the Senate is obvious. If Republicans had won the presidency and a working majority in the Senate, he would have a lot of interesting things to do right now. Instead, he faces the tiresome and demoralizing task of fighting a rear-guard action against the Democrats and against the “moderate” appeasers in his own party. Since he is presumably confident that South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley will appoint a reliably conservative successor, it make sense for him to see what he can do by trying to influence the ideological debate.
But that leads us to Douthat’s point, which as best I can understand it is that Republicans have become more stridently committed to small government—but not better able to explain and defend how this actually helps anybody.
It really was important for Republicans to get more serious about entitlements and to shake off their Bush-era blitheness about deficits. The principles of many Tea Partiers really were an improvement over the transparent cynicism of a Tom DeLay.
But if DeMint-style retrenchment was necessary for Republicans, it wasn’t anywhere near sufficient. The conservatism of 2011 and 2012 had a lot to say about the long-term liabilities of the American government but far too little to say about the most immediate anxieties of American citizens, from rising health care costs to stagnating wages to the socioeconomic malaise spreading across the country’s working class. Neither the Reagan legacy nor the current conservative catechism holds the solutions to these problems; they require Republicans to apply their principles more creatively, and think about policy anew.
This is almost an interesting observation, but in the Supreme Court of Writers it would be ruled void for vagueness. What does it mean to “apply their principles more creatively” or to “think about policy anew”? If this were David Frum or David Brooks, the tame conservative columnist for the Times, I would assume that he meant we have to embrace some kind of “responsible” tax increases and me-too welfare statism with a conservative gloss. Douthat is not quite so tame, so I’m not sure what he means.
But he is on to something. As I observed back in January, when it became clear Romney was pulling ahead of a very weak field of challengers, what we saw this year was the effect of the Republican Party’s “lost generation.” Romney was just a symptom. The fact that he won the Republican nomination was a result of the Republicans’ failure to produce a bench of credible pro-free-market champions in the 1990s and 2000s.
In the 1970s and 80s, American politics was shaped by a resurgence of the defense of capitalism, thanks to a host of famous defenders and explainers. On the moral and philosophical level, there was Ayn Rand, and in economics the most famous voice was Milton Friedman, though he was joined by many others, some of whom are still with us, like Thomas Sowell. They were able to explain how free markets and capitalism work and why everything else fails, and there were leaders in Washington, from Reagan in the White House to Dick Armey in the House to Jack Kemp in the Senate, who reflected their influence to some degree or another.
This culminated in the 1980s—followed by a kind of intellectual complacency. Since then, the Republicans have largely been coasting on Reaganism. I noticed this in 2010 when I moderated several Tea Party sponsored debates in open Republican congressional primaries. I found that when the candidates were questioned about their principles, there was a tendency to fall back to the ideological safety of the appeal to Reagan. They acted as if Reagan had already defined a safe agenda and won all the big political arguments for them, and they didn’t need to follow up with their own, new efforts.
Aside from the fact that this is a bit of an over-romanticization of the Reagan record, it resulted in the reduction of free markets and small government to a set of political bromides as a substitute for first-hand understanding. George W. Bush was a great example of this, declaring that he followed “free-market principles” but then explaining that they had to be “chunked aside” during the financial crisis, showing that he didn’t really understand what a free economy is or how it works.
As we look for new leaders, we need to be clear that being staunch or strident is not enough. Ticking off the right boxes in terms of their policy agenda is not enough. We need leaders who can be popular champions for small government, who can demonstrate what a disaster government intervention is, explain and defend free markets, and make converts to the cause.
There is a better generation of leaders coming up, and the next year will be a good time to evaluate them carefully and identify the best of them, but this defines the standard by which we should judge them.—RWT