The Republican 'Vision Thing'
Do the top Republican challengers to Barack Obama in 2012 have a vision of where the country should be heading in 2013 and beyond? Does this "vision thing" matter?
On January 26, 1987, in a Time magazine article entitled "Where Is the Real George Bush?" by journalist Robert Ajemian, President George H. W. Bush's attitude about the "vision thing" was exposed:
Colleagues say that while Bush understands thoroughly the complexities of issues, he does not easily fit them into larger themes. This has led to the charge that he lacks vision. It rankles him. Recently he asked a friend to help him identify some cutting issues for next year's campaign. Instead, the friend suggested that Bush go alone to Camp David for a few days to figure out where he wanted to take the country. "Oh," said Bush in clear exasperation, "the vision thing." The friend's advice did not impress him.
That cynicism about the "vision thing" was a result of the vice president's attempt to come out from under the long shadow of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Bush wanted to be thought of on his own terms, and not as Reagan lite. Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, was noted for his articulation of his vision for America. Bush couldn't compete with that, and so he downplayed it in the media and was dismissive of it in private, as the Time anecdote attests. The dismissal didn't hurt Bush in 1988 against Michael Dukakis, but it may have been one of the contributing factors in his defeat in 1992 against Bill Clinton, especially regarding a vision of where the country's economic future was heading.
What about the current Republican poll leaders, the challengers for Obama's job? Do they have a clear sense of this "vision thing"? Searching the three leading candidates' websites, one finds the following:
Mitt Romney -- from his "issues" tab, there is this:
Mitt Romney believes in America. He believes that liberty, opportunity, and free enterprise have led to prosperity and strength before and will do so again. America, however, must take decisive action to roll back the misguided policies of the last three years, empower our citizens, and restore the foundations of our nation's strength.
Pretty visionary stuff: "liberty, opportunity, and free enterprise." And there's a specific thrown in: roll back Obama's policies of the last three years.
Rick Perry -- also from the "issues" tab, Perry says the following:
America is at a crossroads. One in six work-eligible Americans cannot find a full-time job. The nation's credit rating has been downgraded for the first time in history. Millions of Americans are struggling to avoid foreclosure or to just make ends meet. As national leaders spend more time assigning blame than laying out a clear vision, the prospects for recovery seem dim[.] ... The principles that have guided Rick Perry's leadership in Texas are the same principles that will guide him as President: Don't spend all the money. Keep taxes low and regulations fair. And invest aggressively in job creation, because good jobs make the American Dream possible[.] ... It's time for a leader who will allow us to believe again - to believe that America's best days are ahead, that we are not consigned to a fate of high unemployment and economic despair, and that our place in the world can once again be secure with a policy of peace through strength.
Perry actually uses the "vision" word, claims that "our best days are ahead," and offers a few specifics: "Don't spend all the money. Keep taxes low and regulations fair. And invest aggressively in job creation"
Herman Cain -- Cain has a number of tabs about issues on his website, such as National Security, Spending, and Immigration. So you can get his vision for America by accessing those issues. For example, here is his vision for America regarding national security:
We must acknowledge the real and present danger that terrorist nations and organizations pose to our country's future. Further, we must stand by our friends and we must not be fooled by our enemies. We should never be deceived by terrorists. They only have one objective, namely, to kill all of us. We must always remain vigilant in dealing with adversaries[.] ... We must support our military with the best training, equipment, technology and infrastructure necessary to keep them in a position to win. We must also provide our men and women in uniform, our veterans and their families with the benefits they deserve for their tremendous sacrifice. These heroes have served us. We must never forget to serve them.
Cain has specifics throughout his website on the issues listed.
The conclusion, looking at their websites, is that these three candidates get it when it comes to telling Americans what their vision is for America and how we are going to get there.
But does this "vision thing" really make a difference when it comes to voting for president? How does one assess that? There are no polls about a candidate's vision for America. However, you can look at a poll conducted by Gallup each year in March regarding worrying about national issues. On March 21, 2011, the results were included in an article by Lydia Saad on the Gallup website called "Americans' Worries About Economy, Budget Top Other Issues." According to Gallup, Americans were worried a fair amount or a great deal about (% in parenthesis) these issues:
Federal spending and the budget deficit (87%)
Availability and affordability of healthcare (83%)
Availability and affordability of energy (79%)
Social Security system (77%)
Hunger and homelessness (75%)
Crime and violence (74%)
Size and power of federal government (72%)
Possibility of future terrorist attacks in the U.S. (69%)
Quality of the environment (68%)
Illegal immigration (65%)
Drug use (64%)
Race relations (44%)
Based on these results, Republican candidates must allay significant fears (all those over 50%) while presenting a grand vision for America. There are no better examples of a grand vision than Reagan's "Morning in America" theme for the 1984 presidential campaign and his "Shining City on a Hill" speech given at the close of the 1976 Republican convention.
But is the vision necessary? It is if you want to package what you will do to calm the public's anxieties. Such a vision provides a compelling image of how America will look when the fears are eradicated. FDR, in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, in the throes of the Depression, painted that future image of a New Deal America best: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Whoever the Republican candidate is in 2012 will succeed if he or she produces an image of an America that is not Obama's big-government, tax-the-rich, worldwide-appeasement version. In a confident and optimistic way, the candidate must paint a picture of an America with low unemployment, a booming economy, and a superpower reputation that is respected throughout the world. Therefore, the Reagan "vision thing" matters -- together with the details of the policies that will help us get there. Anything less will be political suicide.