Is This Romney's Time in History?
Mitt Romney has many good qualities. He has a first-rate intellect, he has a thorough understanding of public policy issues and foreign affairs (unlike Cain), he has a spotless character and enormous self-control (unlike Gingrich), and as a venture capitalist and governor he has a substantial record of both public and private sector accomplishments (unlike Perry). In most years he would make a fine president. But is Romney the right man for this point in history?
In American history there have been several major political cycles when one political party dominates for about thirty years. It starts when a charismatic figure emerges to articulate a vision of what that political party stands for and attracts a generation of loyalists. There have been seven of these cycles when a president establishes a new party or re-creates an old party: In 1789 Washington established the Federalist Party; in 1800 Jefferson, the Republican Party; in 1828 Jackson, the Democratic Party; in 1860 Lincoln, the modern Republican Party; in 1896 McKinley, Republican; in 1932 Roosevelt, Democrat; and in 1980 Reagan, Republican.
These so called electoral alignments and realignments usually occur when a political or economic crisis occurs at the same time new issues surface. In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt articulated a vision of a new Democratic Party based on populism and the federal government's moral responsibility to care for segments of the population in need, such as the unemployed and the elderly. He rejected the old laissez-fair, state's rights Democratic Party centered mostly in the South and built a majority coalition around a new set of principles that attracted a generation of devoted followers.
Likewise, by the end of the Gilded Age Lincoln's expression of the Republican Party, centered on resolving the sectional crisis between the North and the South over slavery, no longer addressed the new issues of the day. In 1896, three years after the Panic of 1893, William McKinley created a new Republican Party emphasizing issues dealing with industrialization, big business, urbanization, and globalism. He roundly defeated William Jennings Bryan, the populist Democrat who represented the old world of farmers and fundamentalists.
The last realignment occurred in 1980 (30 years ago) when Ronald Reagan articulated a vision for a new Republican Party that discarded the old stale Republican Party of Dewey/Taft/Rockefeller. By the 1970s, large segments of the population rejected the excesses of the Great Society welfare state, the anti-Americanism of the intellectual class, the radicalism of the New Left, and the lawlessness of the street protesters. Reagan expressed a new, optimistic conservatism that spoke to these people.
Reagan taught America what was unique about America and why he loved America.
As he said in his farewell letter, as a president he shared his great "love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future." He was especially adept at explaining the difference between traditional American values and European Socialism. America is based on equal opportunity, which is fundamentally more just and optimistic than forced equal outcome. He talked about how the liberty of capitalism creates tremendous innovation and prosperity, but that it must be tempered with the Judeo-Christian values of justice, charity, and humility. Individualism and self reliance, in a system of limited government, fosters certain robust virtues; while welfarism, secularism, and class envy lead to decadence and is economically unsustainable.
I came of age in the 1980s and Reagan, along with Bill Buckley, served as a role model and shaped my world view. My conservative cohorts and I will always call ourselves Reagan Conservatives or Reagan Republicans. But right now we are due for another realignment; people under forty have no recollection of Reagan. In 2008, many liberal pundits were predicting the Barrack Obama would create a new Democratic alignment. But after three years he seems to be another tax and spend liberal. The old Democratic prescriptions did nothing to ameliorate the Great Recession. So Republicans have a great opportunity now.
But when Reagan Conservatives look at Mitt Romney we do not see the inspiring, transformational leader of Reagan. He does not seem to get the culture war. He does not really understand, as George H. W. Bush said, "the vision thing." Romney is more a fixer, a problem solver. For most of his adult life, as CEO of Bain Capital, he bought underperforming companies and turned them around. He is a technocrat -- his expertise is in doing things better and more efficiently.
So, as we enter the primaries, what are the best case scenarios for Reagan Republicans like me?
First, the White Knight Scenario -- but this hasn't worked out. Seeing no Reagan in the field, we tried to recruit a reaganesque hero to come and save the day. First there was Mitch Daniels, followed by Bobbie Jindahl, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio, but they all said now was not their time. The good news about this, however, is that it shows that conservatives have a deep bench. Mike Huckabee is another conservative Republican who does have the talent to articulate a transformational conservative vision. But he does not seem to have the fire in the belly. And this is a prerequisite; great leaders have an overwhelming calling.
So, the second scenario is that Romney will become a transformational leader. He can lead a realignment but not in the way Reagan did, which is the way it should be -- McKinley was no Lincoln, and Reagan was no McKinley. Reagan's message resonated for us because we were dealing with the Cold War and the New Left counterculture. But the young generation, generation Y or Z, or whatever they are calling them now, has a new set of problems and issues.
They grew up on computers and they are happiest when systems work probably. Apple is almost a religion to some of them because it actually works, and it works in a simple, elegant way. But now they see themselves in a world that is obviously broken, malfunctioning, defective, and prone to crash. If Mitt Romney, perhaps with Newt Gingrich as his VP, can fix our economy and fix our government, using simple conservative principles, he could be just as inspiring and transformational as Reagan was to us.
As followers of Reagan, this second scenario is our best path. We must rally behind Romney. He, along with the new batch of young leaders, will create a new conservatism, based on problem-solving using conservative solutions, that will have meaning for the young generation and that will help them make a better future. As Reagan said, "America's best days are yet to come. Our proudest moments are yet to be. Our most glorious achievements are just ahead."