America: This time, it’s personal

We the people.

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.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

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.

15 thoughts on “America: This time, it’s personal”

  1. “But it does mean that the public is inured to the Obama shtick.”

    Schtick? Was that a typo, Opticon…? 🙂


    1. Not a typo. Really, couldn’t you have just Googled it rather than waste a comment on this?

  2. “I’m trying to get a book finished” – I look forward to it. When do we get a preview?

  3. You state this:

    “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.”

    They recognized the tyranny of power and were not really skeptical of govt as much as not trusting of it – they really didn’t want it to work too well hence the checks and balances we see all over it – Roberts failed that particular task last week, as he refused the check and balance role that was clearly there in front of him. But I digress.

    The Founders were very much of the opinion that the elite must be men of great character – they were terrified of direct democracy, and in fact most had little faith in the character of the common man, and this is well chronicled in books on the writing of the constitution. They made platitudes to the common man – Madison in particular was very much driving direct elections of almost everything – but his opinion did not hold sway with a majority of the men there. Wilson of Pennsylvannia and maybe Sherman of Conn, were the closest to him, but Sherman saw the option of the compromise and threw direct democracy out as soon as he got the chance to get a deal.

    I would argue our problem is that we vote not for the man of character, but the man of our party in most cases. Obama lacks character, Delay wasn’t a paragon of virtue, neither was LBJ, and Nixon was paranoid. Pelosi is getting waivers left and right for the PPACA. We continue to send back those people who have no character, or more graceously, substantial character flaws, and we wonder why they pander to the lowest common denominator with bribes to vote for me.

    Perhaps that is why the great nations cannot maintain themselves – they eventually eat themselves, and so it is going with us. Romney to his credit appears to be a man of high character, but his willingness to actually try and kill our appetite is certainly questionable. National democrats are just full blown cannibals.

    I fear we are toast – I hope that is untrue.

  4. The line of the National Review Republican since the late -50’s has been, “Big Tent”, gotta have a big tent, get everybody in, Big Tent!!!
    Conservatives have done poorly under this model; Progressive Republicans and the Republican Party have done well, which means we’re bankrupt. You keep selling this mess. Gotta get ANY kind of Republican into the White House….it’s an emergency.

  5. We are a house divided. We are the many Red Counties subjugated by the few Blue Counties. We are an acid mix of too much power aggregated in too few places with interests having nothing to do with ordered liberty and the rule of law.

    The big cities are festering pest holes of renters and their patrons. They rape their surrounding states for resources, capital, and prestige… one need only drive north on the New York State Thruway… and then West past the Hudson Valley, struggling along paying the city’s taxes, feeding it water and power… but never seeing a return. Turn west at Abany or continue north either way… but you will see community after community with too jobs, too little capital, and too much dependency to operate independently.

    That image is duplicated for every mega-city… The proverbial weed mass in the garden… sucking all of the nutrients out of the soil, and all of the available water… and sun…

    This nation state is currently economically broke, fiscally unsound, and woefully dependent.

    Most of us know exactly what we want, but only a minority wants ordered liberty, the rule of law, and the right to property. The remainder, sadly, want a lot. They want everything. They want it all, and they want it given to them, NOW!… Veruca Salt is tame by comparison; dependent and demanding.

    And now failing.

    The decision will be taken for us, JE. It is now out of our hands to do more than be prudent, prepare, and maintain the memory of what works, what is good and just, and what we need to avoid on the next go round.

    Yesterday the MSM was Shocked!!! Yes, SHOCKED!!! That states with Republican governors who were balancing their budgets and cutting spending had increases in employment. Wow… how “near-fetched”.

    At some point the Red counties will realize that the Leviathan needs us; and we don’t have any need for it.

    Mitt Romney is a Limousine Liberal Democrat masquerading as a Republican….

    I will say no more. He is unlikely to be a even a good place holder. He’s more likely to be the object of blame at the wheel when the plummeting junker that is our failed economy finally hits the ground.

    Hope the book gets done soon… I’m buying but I want that Jane Hancock personalized. Maybe that will give my wife an excuse to let me finally let me put up a book case for my public policy and history books.


  6. It doesn’t matter who the president is. Read Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. The declining marginal utility of the complex solutions found for modern “problems” means that eventually a society that needs a 2700 page bill, and whole new bureaucracies, to administer universal health care is either going to disappear or be absorbed by a simpler one. Fighting back and forth over which group of politico-criminals gets to run the con game won’t change the outcome. Too many freeloaders have a stake in the scam, from elected officials to licensed barbers to divorce lawyers to guys driving the snowplows. The democratic, quasi-free market plan of the 18th century colonials was the best they could come up with at the time but it ultimately failed, as de Toqueville and others predicted. Keeping it on life support because of its familiarity is a waste of resources.

  7. Oh dear! When you say that “there’s no there there, and increasingly, the people know it”, you show again that you’re incapable of distinguishing between the imaginary world the fringe-right has invented and the real America inhabited by real Americans. As the weeks roll by to the November denoument, the RCP poll-of-polls (a rather more empirical view of our opinions than the wishful thinking of a fringe minority) shows that Obama’s lead over Romney is hardening at 2.5% -3%. “Increasingly” the American people seem not to be taking much heed of how you and your ilk have decided what is best for the nation. The Founders were indeed wise to rely “ultimately on the good sense and character of the people”. You pinned your colours to the banners of people like Palin and Bachmann. Well, our nation might be divided, but one thing united Americans – both Republicans and Democrats: The firm view that neither of these ladies had the character or good sense to be considered presidential material. The Republican primary voters eloquently underlined this fact.

    You invoke the Founders and the late President Reagan to endorse your very odd and off-centre views. The record shows the real Ronald Reagan was a man of consensus and compromise. He was a man whose achievements were possible because of his ability to work with Congress and other patriotic Americans like Tip O’Neill. If the real Ronald Reagan were the contemporary Republican president or nominee he would be vilified and eviscerated by you and your ilk. Do you think that the gutless inability of the House majority to face down the vocal extremists who demand no compromise with the Democrats would be any different if Ronald Reagan were President? In your dreams. Your retrospectively invented Ronald Reagan is both dishonest and an insult to the real man. To misquote Robert Redford: ‘No, Mam, “your” Ronald Reagan is nothing like the real Ronald Reagan’.

    You also profoundly misunderstand the world in which our Founders lived, and the political and philosophical context in which the Constitution came into being. The Founders provided for a system of government – not a system of non-government. It was a system of government which was indeed limited – but not in the sense you harp on about. Their concerns about untramelled government power were addressed by the division of state power between the three branches of government and the system of checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution. The Founders were prescient enough not to hardwire the fashions and preoccupations of their own time into the Constitution. They used broad brushstrokes and left wide discretion to their successors, and, of course, they ultimately left it to the good sense and character of the people to decide these things within those very broad brushstrokes. It is this wide flexibility that has allowed our Constitution, drafted by a small group of white landowners in a largely rural agrarian society, to remain viable as the fundamental law of an urban, industrialized, nuclear armed nation of 300 million souls. Given the preoccupations of the times in which they lived, its is the threat to our liberty from our burgeoning security state-within-a-state and its apparatus that would probably most worry the Founders, – but that again is only my opinion, and no better than yours.

    As for Romney. It is all the things you despise about him that might just see him get elected if the economy continues to languish into the autumn. You don’t need to be very bright to realize that by making himself more amenable to an extreme minority that will vote Republican anyway, and much less palatable to the rest of the electorate, Romney is not going to increase his chances of election. Romney’s best chance is in portraying himself as a basically decent centrist and man of consensus. Romney’s problem sure ain’t his lack of credibility with the nutters on the extreme right. His problem is his flip-floppery, lack of empathy, and his tendency to parrot whoever was the last person to kick his rear. (In other words “character”)

    You see, it is the good sense and character of the people that decides these things. It is telling that your ultimate argument is to claim that long dead people legitimize your views and delegitimize contrary views. Leave the Founders and Ronald Reagan alone. Why not use a more contemporary and relevant measure like your hero Bachmann? After all, she unquestionably represents most of what you believe in. The only problem is that we all know that even the Republican party decided she had neither the sense nor character to be even a nominee for President. Which, I suppose makes her a rather less convenient legitimizer than the long-dead people who you invoke and travesty to your cause.

    1. , it is the good sense and character of the people that decides these things.

      But not when it’s somebody like GWB or Scott Walker that wins the election, then it’s some big mistake, or maybe even a crime. And if the good sense and character of the people tell them that they’d be fools to buy a Chevrolet, well, somebody with more good sense and character has to step in and redirect things. Somebody like Pinocchia Pelosi, who tells us we have to pass the bill so we can find out what’s in it. Unfortunately, the good sense and character of the people is exercised in the political sphere only rarely. The general population of sensibles doesn’t get to say aye or nay to 10% ethanol in their motor fuel or a ban on incandescent bulbs or wearing seat belts in their CAFE-conforming Prius or buying hypertension medication without a prescription. They can’t make those kind of decisions on their own but they are qualified to pick the guy who gets to push the button in the football that blows up the world.

      1. Obviously the majority of Americans have a contrary view to yours as to what constitutes good sense and character.

        But Hell! we are a broadminded lot and your odd opinions are protected by that little amendment to the Constitution.


  8. Yes, Pelosi who exempts her friends from ObamaCare. I thought it was wonderful – if you are politically connected you get a pass.

    Of course the gap is not hardening it is reducing. The summer is typically slow – but today Gallop says tied. NBC said Romney overall leads in the swing states in aggregate. Obama is a fighter hanging on. We are wondering when or if Romney can land the punch that knocks him out.

  9. Thats nice OC but “We the People” are completely helpless unless there are very dramatic policy changes that allow to breathe, to aspire, to strive to achieve. For this to happen very significant policy changes MUST take place and they cannot wait 8 or even 4 years. And for this purpose presidential leadership is utterly indispensable.

    Mitt Romney’s program, to the extent we are familiar with it, is sufficient for this purpose (provided, of course that it leads into a superior presidency rather than a swing back to even a “moderate” Democrat). His tax bill is terribly flawed but would be a giant improvement over the current system. His entitlement reform plans are vague but give many indications of being sufficient if implemented without any deviation to the left. His views on foreign policy and the military give some (even considerable?) cause for optimism. If this program is implemented immediately and pretty much in full we will experience dramatic and sustained economic growth, unemployment will plummet and America’s position in the world, strategically and morally will be greatly enhanced. All of this would mitigate the culture of dependency, create opportunity and make many of us better citizens more capable of self-government.

    But this program will have to be implemented. This is not 1850, 1900, or even 1950. The Federal Government is simply too big and too intrusive to enable us to function at anything approaching our potential as a society and unless it is so implemented we will have still less opportunity, many more of us will become despondent, envious and dependent and we will cease to be a functioning society. For it to be implemented, however, will require presidential leadership. Even sound, responsible, hard working citizens do not have the inclination and often the time to follow politics as closely as is needed for them to exert the pressure necessary for these changes. Polling shows very solid majorities of close and most often in excess of 60% that would be inclined to support a maximalist Romneyian agenda, but it will require a tremendous awareness and energetic and sustained commitment on their part to drive the enactment of such an agenda agains the institutional barriers and friction of the washington establishment and the political process. And vocal, persistent and effective presidential leadership is needed to galvanize that awareness and if Mitt Romney fails to provide such leadership we are in VERY Big Trouble.

  10. Well, Cavalier, I don’t know….

    On the one hand we have a President who has got where he is in the time-honored American way – his own efforts and hard-work. He was born with no special priviliges or advantages. He bears eloquent testimony to American meritocracy at its best. He came into office burdened by the Bush recession and our country remains handicapped by the continuing financial disarray among our trading-partners. Yet, the US under his administration (and in spite of the best attempts by the Republican House to sabotage recovery so long as he remains in office) is weathering the crisis caused by the Republican-deregulated financial sector far better than most other First-World nations.

    On the other hand…….One of the ideals underpinning the vision of the Founders was to get rid forever of that class of rentiers known as the aristocracy. It seems we now have a new class of aristocratic rentier – the investment bankers. These are people who create nothing of value but reward themselves like the nobility they believe themselves to be. It seems some of them even pay themselves millions for doing nothing at all. And these people are far too posh to reveal their tax-affairs to us mere mortals. And anyhow, it is none of the business of lesser folk whether those to the investment-bank born do their investments in the Cayman Isles rather than in American jobs.

    Unlike many Europeans, Americans admire and aspire to wealtha and success built on hard-work and merit. But they sure don’t admire the self-entitlement of the aristocratic noblesse sans oblige.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: