Restoration and Renewal In 2012: A Theme For Romney
The New Frontier. Morning in America. Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow. Compassionate Conservatism. Hope and Change. Wrapping themselves in such slogans, men have won the White House in the past. Some on the right have criticized the Romney campaign for lacking a unifying banner of principle, but it seems to me that the campaign has a potential organizing theme: restoration and renewal.
The technocratically-tending Romney has often defined himself less as a figure of rigid ideology and more as a data-driven competent-in-chief. While a willingness to experiment may prove helpful in facing the nation's challenges, an organizing message may be helpful, too. The former Massachusetts governor has a personal reputation (fostered by his experiences at Bain and the Olympic Games) as a turnaround artist, but the theme of restoration and renewal goes deeper than that. Since at least 2000, a growing number of Americans have felt that there is something increasingly off about recent evolutions in the body politic -- a number that spiked after the economic cataclysm of 2008. Both the Tea Party and, yes, Occupy Wall Street are responses to this feeling of unease. The calculated amorphousness of Barack Obama's slogan of "hope and change" was meant to be an antidote to this unease; however, due to missteps and ideological choices, the Obama administration has exacerbated, not ameliorated, American dissatisfaction. The purported great uniter has become the great polarizer, and 2012 looks to be a year in which the president aims to use this polarization as a tactic for his reelection campaign. President Obama's campaign has struggled to articulate what exactly would be the animating end of a second Obama term. The choice of "forward" as the campaign's new keyword is telling in its ambiguity -- forward, exactly, into what? Further stagnation? Further polarization?
Restoration speaks to the fact that, for many if not most Americans, the United States is not an essentially sick and depraved country, in need of radical transformation by the wonder-working One. Restoration celebrates the idea that the founding principles of this nation -- as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other documents -- are still valid and worthy. Restoration, however, does not mean simply a reactionary turning back the clock to 1900 or 1800; such a leap cannot be accomplished, nor, in many respects, should it be. Just as we can subject the present to moral critique, so too can we criticize aspects of the past. Though there are many wrongs in American history (such as slavery, brutal bigotry, cruel economic exploitation, etc.), there are also a number of shining rights. We should build where possible on the successes of the past. In the act of renewal, we can strive for the best of American ideals and principles. This kind of renewal would demand an honest accounting of present circumstances and a willingness to try for something better.
A theme of restoration and renewal would acknowledge the unease of many Americans with the current trajectory of the United States over the past decade, where setback has all too often replaced victory, and where losses have often outpaced gains. In a little over ten months, the worst terrorist attack in US history followed a ferociously contested presidential election. Foreign affairs have remained in various states of turmoil since then. A sluggish economy fueled by debt and the leveraging of debt led to an economic near-collapse. Disappointment has replaced aspiration for many Americans. A process of civil renewal would be the regaining of this traditional aspiration. The trope of restoration speaks particularly to conservatism, as it asserts the importance of tradition and the past while also critiquing some of the limitations of the present. Renewal would not be a radical change of our social essence but an assertion of what is best in it.
Here are five aspects of restoration and renewal that seem particularly relevant:
Restore and renew the economy: American economic growth has slowed since 2000: according to James Piereson, the average annual GDP growth between 2000 and 2008 was 2.6% -- and that's without factoring in the Great Recession. From 1947-2000, the average annual GDP growth rate was 3.5%. Even the peak of the purported "Bush Boom" was well below the peaks of preceding business cycles. The economy under the Obama administration has made starkly clear how much the American economy has gone off the rails relative to its traditional trajectory. The economy can be -- and has been -- much stronger. Romney can point in the directions of the economic reforms necessary to effect this broader restoration. The campaign has made economic renewal the focus of its public narrative, but the issue of economic recovery has further implications.
Restore and renew government finances: As Jay Cost has noted in a searching essay in National Affairs, strong economic growth funded social insurance programs in post-New Deal America. Economic vibrancy ensured that a social safety net did not require crushing levels of taxation. Under the current stagnation, that dynamic has broken down. A huge portion (in my estimate, at least 50%) of the current annual deficit can be directly traced to the stagnation of the moment: depressed tax revenues and increased spending on income-security programs (such as unemployment benefits and food stamps) have raised our deficits to troubling levels. It is not a public debt crisis in and of itself that is the source of our problems; this debt crisis is a symptom of a broader political-economic faltering. It is perhaps in part due to anxiety over this faltering that many Americans have become so enraged by the exploding national debt. Republicans, led by Romney, could point to an economic restoration and renewal as a big step to putting government finances on a sustainable path. Growth and a willingness to make hard decisions, perhaps even displacing some of the idols of the moment, could go a long way to proving to Americans that we are turning the corner and leaving the cycle of crushing debt behind.
Restore and renew the middle class: Some may scoff at concerns about income inequality, but the pain felt by the middle class, especially in terms of lost opportunity, is real. During the Bush years, many tried to paper over the economic decline of the middle and working classes with a multi-year feast of debt. The near-meltdown of 2007 and 2008 showed how dangerous such fare can be. There is a case to be made that the Obama administration, whatever its rhetoric, is exacerbating income inequality, not bettering it. Even progressives' favorite economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez have noted that, in 2010, 93% of the economic gains went to the top 1%. The Obama "recovery" has been in many ways a recovery for the few but a disappointment for the many. Throughout the Republican primary, Romney often cast himself as the tribune of the middle class, pledging to restore opportunity for the vast majority of Americans. This defense of the middle can be folded into a broader case for heightening a sense for accessible opportunity in the United States. The optimism of American capitalism depends upon the presumption that, with talent, effort, and a bit of luck, it is possible to climb to some level of comfort and security. The past decade may have tested that presumption, but there is no reason why such a goal need be abandoned. The middle class has proven one of the cornerstones of a free republic, so restoring the middle also assists a restoration of our civic foundations.
Restore and renew the civic: Any kind of renewal will likely entail some significant changes, including possibly some distribution of temporary pain, and these changes are much more likely to be successful when Americans feel like they are all in the social compact together. Lincoln understood this, as did FDR and Reagan. A sense of civic unity (though not necessarily uniformity) can help the nation weather the current storm. Unfortunately, President Obama has often chosen to pit Americans against each other, escalating the kind of civic dislocation that has hit the country hard at least since the 2000 election. Moreover, the president's escalation of executive authority on a number of issues (on government documents, warfare, and immigration, for example) heightens many Americans' sense of a republic increasingly disconnected from its foundations. Instead of slicing and dicing America to distract from our nation's troubles, Romney could speak to a common hope for improvement as a way of helping us face our troubles. The nation-state has a valuable role to play in defending Republican liberty, and Romney can make a convincing case for the idea that, however fierce our disputations, we are still one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.
Restore and renew the American dream: The core of American optimism has faded over the past decade; the dream of synthesizing personal liberty, virtue, and economic prosperity has been assailed by numerous forces. It is time to restore that dream. That vision helped animate the Founders and carried the nation through many a tempest, and the unease of many Americans can be traced to a worry that this dream is fading. Especially since his victory in the primaries, Romney has talked up the idea of common prosperity and new horizons of opportunity; this theme could be further emphasized. Aspiration seems one of the key traits of the national character, such as it is. Restoring a sense of hope in the future of America and backing up this hope with growth-friendly policies would be a significant accomplishment indeed.
The theme of restoration and renewal is not just a reversion to some past order -- you can never go home again -- but a method of finding new ways to realize old ideals. We can at once acknowledge the achievements and the ambitions of the past, which still run in our national DNA, while also going onward to a new realization. Facing a nation scarred by war and exhausted by years of frantic political struggle, Warren Harding pledged a return to normalcy. Mitt Romney might find it helpful to run on a message that the past decade's normalization of disappointment is not permanent -- we can still return to the traditional hopes and vision of the United States.