It's the Leadership, Stupid
The recent anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth brought home why so many have been discouraged by the Republican primaries. We remembered that while Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, et.al. have been scrambling to, as the current usage goes, "show leadership" -- with 157-point economic plans, visions of Moon colonies, and mostly documenting what bums the other guys are -- Ronald Reagan never sought to "show" any such thing. Instead, even as a candidate, Reagan led, and it is the sober recognition of the extraordinary effectiveness of his leadership, and not some gauzy-focus nostalgia that makes him stand, even now, a head taller than his would-be successors.
Reagan led not through "sticking to the issues," as the head-shaking Republican political gurus are urging the squabbling contenders to do. He led by speaking simultaneously to our hearts and our heads. Reagan invoked, explained, and demonstrated the practical application of time-tested truths about economic life, war and peace, and human freedom in a way that encouraged people battered by inflation and unemployment and fearing national decline and a diminished future. We do not remember Reagan claiming that he or anybody who worked for him was brilliant, nor bragging about his experience in government or achievements in the private sector. For Reagan, the brilliance worth celebrating lay not in Ivy-League degrees, but in incandescent values, and the achievements that merited pride were those of Americans prospering in freedom as they made unprecedented contributions to the well-being of the rest of the world.
Some focus-group git needs to explain to the Republican contenders just how they are falling terribly short of the leadership mark, because this country needs Reagan-level head-and-heart leadership even more desperately than it did in 1980.
While joblessness, the housing market, and fiscal woes dominate what passes for primary politics, a lot of seemingly disparate trends point to a development even more dangerous. These trends did not begin with Obama, but his policies certainly have intensified and accelerated them. (What is worse, one could claim that many of them fit Obama's "growing government through growing dependence" agenda.) If they are not acknowledged and addressed, we are going to see a "fundamental transformation" of our society, all right -- the shredding of an American social fabric that has survived even civil war and depression.
In Coming Apart, Charles Murray has identified the problem: we are, as a people, separating into two distinct and increasingly unbridgeable cultures, thereby losing the cohesion of shared values that had in the past sustained the unique political and social order that has been referred to as American exceptionalism. We are growing up, courting and marrying, working, raising our families and educating our children, worshiping, managing our assets, using new technologies, and amusing ourselves in fundamentally divergent ways. In our interactions with politics, markets, the military, governmental institutions, the law -- in most of what the medievalist Johan Huizenga called "forms of life and thought" -- we are diverging as Americans have never seemed as radically and irreversibly to diverge before. Add to this what appears to be an Obama election strategy of division based on envy and resentment, likely to be accompanied by unprecedented levels of voting irregularities and attendant questions raised about the integrity of the vote in 2012, and we require a high order indeed of restorative Republican leadership during and after the election.
While it is silly to expect that politics and government policies can "fix" our eroding socio-cultural order, it would be fatal to craft any post-2012 agenda absent recognition of said order. Assume that the economy begins to come back as European capital seeks a safer haven here; oil and gas-related opportunities in the building trades open up; there is an increased need for workers with a high level of technical and computer skills as some American manufacturers repatriate jobs. How, exactly, is the long-term unemployed, low-skilled, poorly educated twenty-six year-old in rural Central Virginia -- who can't relocate until he unloads his mortgaged under-water house; whose wife has been working two jobs as a waitress; and whose own contribution to the family has been babysitting, two deer this season, and his unemployment check -- supposed to welcome the news of economic recovery if he continues to feel a class apart?
The need to address the looming social divide identified by Murray is fundamental to restoring health and confidence in our political and economic systems. Republicans should add new dimensions to their political talk about an array of issues including unemployment insurance and other elements of the social safety net, finally addressing the inadequacies of K-12 education, vocational education and skill certification, tax policy, youth employment and the minimum wage, college loans, and health care, just to name a few.
But as yet, we have seen only very little of this. Can anyone envision Mitt Romney adding restoring the exceptional American social/cultural order as the 168th point in his recovery plan? Can we imagine him ever finding the language to talk about it? Newt Gingrich might promiscuously raise it one day, but the likelihood is that he'd trivialize it by lurching the next day to the boundless promise of third-generation laser fusion at the South Pole or some such. Rick Santorum is a question mark in this regard, juxtaposing as he does a broader spiritual/moral vision in some aspects of his pitch with conventional big-government wonky conservative policy-targeting in others -- we don't need just Rust-Belt exceptionalism restored.
Maybe one of these guys can rise to the occasion. On the other hand, addressing our looming societal divorce as the ultimate rationale for fixing the economy and everything else that needs repair could be the vehicle some dark horse pulls into a brokered Republican convention. Here is a theme worthy of the Great Communicator himself.