I’m trying to get a book finished, and it isn’t helping to keep stopping to write blog posts. But this point is worth making.
I believe the Obama campaign is wasting its time with attacks on Mitt Romney. That doesn’t mean Team Obama will wise up; it has only a few tricks in its bag, and it deploys them over and over. But it does mean that the public is inured to the Obama shtick. There’s no there there, and increasingly, the people know it.
There’s something else about this election that tends to rob the trademark Obama demagoguery of its effect. A growing number of Americans perceive our nation to be at a turning point (or a precipice; choose your metaphor). If Romney were a more galvanizing candidate for conservative Republicans, there would be a greater tendency to associate him with the prospect of an American turn-around, on the order of the Reagan presidency.
But Romney is not the object of widespread enthusiasm. He comes across as a decent, accomplished man who wants to do the right thing, but he is perfectly comfortable with big government, and seems to have no philosophical underpinnings: certainly not conservative ones – constitutionalism, limited government, originalist philosophy – nor any of the kind that help meaningful policies weather the storms of political opposition.
Throughout the very competitive primary season, millions of voters were hoping intensely for someone else. Yet Romney didn’t tack to the right much during the primary season, and his “inevitability” has meant that he sees little reason to do so in the general campaign. He won’t be doing heavy lifting for small-government conservatism in the Oval Office.
His difference with Obama is more profound than merely a set of disputes over the precise content of big-government policy. Romney comes across as having a better character. He’s not steeped in cronyism, he doesn’t want to “Alinsky” his opponents – or Alinsky the middle class, for that matter – and he generally respects the people and the idea of their private property. Romney in the Oval Office would not be a predator, ideological or otherwise. But his idea of the proper role and scope of government is much closer to that of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and all the Democratic presidential candidates since 1964 – including, ultimately, Barack Obama – than that of Ronald Reagan. Romney’s a Massachusetts pol; a Republican in Massachusetts would be a Democrat in a good 35 of the other states.
Reagan, by contrast, was a defining leader, even philosopher, of the limited-government conservative movement. He did, in fact, do the heavy lifting for conservatism in Washington, DC. He didn’t get everything he wanted, and he didn’t satisfy conservatives on every point. But he was the person leading the charge, acting on a set of philosophical premises about the proper relationship of government to the people. His premises were opposed in important ways to the assumptions of the New Deal and the Great Society. Reagan, when he went to Washington, acted on the understanding that he had a mandate to literally reverse the encroachments of government on the people’s lives.
Conservatives in 2012 understand clearly that Mitt Romney will not do this. He has never said he will, and he has never spoken in philosophical terms that suggest he might. Electing Romney isn’t electing a champion of the American political idea. It’s a tactical move to get Obama out of office.
The period of the Obama tenure, and now the 2012 election, are forcing Americans to reconsider, in a way I’m not sure we have for a good 200 years, what the vote means, and what politics means to our lives. Since 1792, the sense has gradually crept upon us that when we elect a president, we are electing our collective future. That sense took a giant leap forward with the FDR presidency, and frankly, it took another one when Reagan entered office.
Some of the most important (although not necessarily good) legislation in the 20th century was actually passed under other presidents, like Wilson, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter. But FDR and Reagan were seen by their respective constituencies, in a way none of the other presidents in the last century was, as leaders who could steer our course decisively by using the power of the executive. An idea has spread in the public consciousness that electing a president is tantamount to electing a savior.
The point here is not that it doesn’t matter who the president is; the point is that in sending saviors to Washington, the people have effectively minimized and relinquished their own role in the stewardship of America. We have come to think of our main obligation as electing a president, who will then do all the important work while Congress roils around being, incorrigibly, Congress: annoying, posturing, legislatively incontinent.
The Founding Fathers didn’t see it that way – and indeed, it hasn’t turned out to be a very good idea. Now the political turning point in 2012 rests squarely with the people. There is no “champion” – no savior – running for president in either party. It’s down to us now.
What is our character? Can we see through demagoguery and even outright lies? Do we acknowledge our responsibility for a government that today sees us alternately as lab rats and pack mules, and is currently spending our great-great-grandchildren’s earnings? Are we willing to take responsibility for ourselves and our families? Are we willing to help those in need ourselves, rather than handing the government an open-ended charter to remake us all?
What is our view of government? What is government supposed to do? What does it mean to elect someone to public office? What are our responsibilities for self-government? How well do we understand the competing philosophical justifications for small government and big? What do we really think of them?
I see two ways for conservatives to view the vote in November. One involves a pragmatic view of government as something to be handled, as much as possible, through prudent tactics. This view emphasizes method and calculation over philosophy. The other involves a view of government that makes the choice of president a form of positive affirmation of what we believe in. With this view, philosophy is paramount; if philosophical sympathy is absent in the leading candidate(s), no mere method of politics is a way of correcting the deficiency.
Neither perspective stands alone. In most election years, campaigning entails a combination of these perspectives, and a candidate is chosen who seems to marry them as effectively as possible for electoral politics. In 2012, however, conservatives simply can’t make of Romney a “what we believe in” choice. He is instead a “prudent tactics” choice: a placeholder who will basically not be Obama for the next four years.
The only strategically significant point of having a placeholder is so that the people themselves can regroup. Romney cannot be a savior, and in policy terms, he is not the answer to our problems. In the foreseeable future, we have to do the heavy lifting.
What I would like to suggest is that it has been unrealistic all along for American voters to imagine that we can find, every four years, a political avatar of all our hopes and dreams. That is an unrealistic view of politics, and a dangerous view of the role government should play in our lives. It is essentially the role defined by the left for its favorite sons.
It is also unrealistic to suppose that we can delegate to government, or to a particular president, the responsibility of standing up to bad ideas and trends in our society. We ourselves have to stand up to them, in school board meetings and local zoning hearings, in state legislatures and the House of Representatives. We have to stand up to them in our family lives and our personal lives, our lives as citizens, employers, employees, volunteers, philanthropists, and believers.
Even on the political right, we have come to assign government and particular politicians too large a role in correcting the problems around us. Most of us believe in “government” too much now; instead of believing in the smallness of government and the benefits of our own liberty, too many of us have been induced to simply believe in the American government itself, whatever its size.
Our Founders were profoundly – and properly – skeptical of government. They stated repeatedly that their reliance was ultimately on the good sense and character of the people. In 2012, it’s all about the people: who we are and the clarity with which we see our predicament and our options.
That’s one of the biggest reasons why there is so little resonance with our spirits in this year’s election campaign. The Obama campaign’s attacks on Romney are just noise in this season, but even Romney’s proclamations don’t matter all that much. In 2012, the governing dynamic is the American people talking to ourselves, deciding who we really are and what we really believe. Romney isn’t, at any point, going to intrude on that dialogue. In an important sense, Obama is irrelevant to it, except as an example of the extremes to which our century-long practice of seeking saviors can take us.
The dialogue will continue for years after November 2012. The dialogue is what matters, and if a sleeping giant is awakening, it will take some time for it to educate itself. The need for the people to educate and improve ourselves, as self-governing citizens, is actually a good thing, in my view. If we had another Reagan to elect this fall, we would remain passive, waiting for the president to try to do what only we can do. It is good for the people to have to step up to our responsibilities, which start with character and knowledge.
This year, meanwhile, the great resolution we are working toward isn’t so much Democrat or Republican, Obama or Romney; this year, it’s America – liberty, self-government, responsibility – and us.
Note for new commenters: Welcome! There is a one-time “approval” process that keeps down the spam. There may be a delay in the posting if your first comment, but once you’re “approved,” you can join the fray at will.