Over the past week, we have witnessed the Obama Presidency collapse upon itself. From the attacks in Paris showcasing how we have underestimated ISIS, to the fact Iran has increased its stockpile of enriched uranium since agreeing to the nuclear deal, to UnitedHeath considering exiting Obamacare exchanges due to massive losses. Even a key Obamacare architect concedes the insurance plans stink and that costs haven’t been controlled. All the while, Obama, the man who ran promising to end the politics of old and unify the country, has taken his rhetoric to new lows, suggesting Republicans are ISIS recruiters while dismissing a terrorist attacks as a “setback.” The President apparently thinks failings are due to the fact the office of the Presidency “is weak.” A more likely explanation? The man in the office is weak.
In 2016, the Democrats will almost certainly put forth Hillary Clinton who helped architect our naïve and misguided foreign policy that is in total ruin. On top of this, her forthrightness on the issues leaves just a bit to be desired. Given failed policies and the historical challenges of winning three straight terms, 2016 should be a prime opportunity for conservatives to retake the White House and set the country back on a proper trajectory. Polls this far in advance are of little import but show a close and very winnable race, yet I fear there is increasing reason to be worried that once again we will steal defeat from the jaws of victory.
Before your eyes glaze over in anticipation of reading the 14,714th piece on how the GOP needs to do better with Hispanics or women, that is not my focus (either you agree or disagree with that argument, nothing I say will sway you). My concern is more fundamental. The republican electorate is increasingly pessimistic about the future of the country. Conservativism is an innately optimistic political philosophy, and we need to instill optimism if we are going to win. Yet according to the Public Religion Research Institute (in a poll of 2,700), only 41% of republicans and 33% of Tea Party members think America’s best days are ahead of us.
Clearly, the disaster that is the Obama Presidency is weighing on sentiment, and that isn’t surprising; voters’ anger is palpable. At the same time, republican candidates can’t merely play into this pessimism; they need to offer a compelling and hopeful vision about the future. This was a key failure (there were several) in Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. While he prosecuted the case against Obama well, he did not articulate what he would do going forward in a compelling fashion (which boggles the mind given how gifted his running mate, Paul Ryan, is at doing precisely that). It is a fatal error to take a pessimistic tone to voters because it is at odds with our beliefs. Liberals are pessimists at heart, though Obama did a masterful job in 2008 portraying himself as an optimist, helping win the nomination and cruise to the Presidency. I would argue that ultimately voters, even angry ones, want to believe better days for the nation are ahead. To give this ground is mistaken, particularly when our future actually is bright. Saying better days are ahead isn’t merely wise politics, it happens to be the truth! We are too great a nation to accept inevitable decline.
To be conservative is to believe that power and decision-making is best left in the hands of individuals through lower taxation, less regulation, and local control. In other words, we think ordinary people make better decisions than a bunch of so-called experts in a centralized bureaucracy, which implies a positive view of the competence and judgment of people. To support more control at a centralized level, as liberals propose, suggests they don’t trust the public to make decisions. Generally, one thinks less of a person whom one does not trust. This dichotomy is the core disagreement between liberalism and conservatism: do you put your faith in people of bureaucracy? Whether you have a positive or negative view of the public’s competence is a driver of your answer. If you have confidence in the public (as conservatives inherently do), it is then questionable to think the nation’s best days are in the rear view mirror.
This optimist/pessimist divide permeates further. Liberals are now obsessively focused with income inequality. They have all but written off attempts to grow the pie and are laser-focused on re-slicing it. They see an America that can’t be the global leader (heck, Hillary Clinton doesn’t even think the US should lead the fight against ISIS), as though our time as a Super Power able to roll back the evil of communism was a mere flash in the pan, destined to burn out. The core of the democratic platform is basically: we can’t grow so let’s take from the rich to help the poor and abdicate global leadership. This is the platform of people who think America’s best days are behind it. It is also the path of Europe, which chose to enter blissful decline 40 years ago (though it is now realizing that decline isn’t so blissful when debts are high and innovation lacking) and is now on a path to irrelevance in global affairs.
It is still early, but republican candidates have not done a particularly good job laying out an optimistic vision. Much of this is due to the Donald Trump phenomenon. He spends much of his time tearing down opponents, and his policy statements are negative like “wages [are] too high” or “the American dream is dead” (both from the Fox Business Debate…Trump has subsequently claimed he was only speaking to the minimum wage, though he repeated the wage line elsewhere). The recent controversy over a national Muslim registry shows a candidate who plays to our worst fears rather than our greater aspirations. Given multiple chances to walk back that statement, Trump continues to suggest an openness to it, most recently on This Week. Let’s be clear: rounding up and registering people of a certain faith isn’t conservative, it is evil, cruel, and fascist. For a candidate pledging to “make America great again,” it would be hard to argue Trump has run a hopeful, optimistic campaign, and in the process, he has lowered the discourse in our primary debate. I would suggest other candidates like Ted Cruz have let anger overwhelm optimism, and many who are supposed optimists like Jeb Bush come across as impotent. In fairness, Marco Rubio has been the candidate who has done the best job in the field laying out an optimistic vision for the country.
In particular, he has turned the immigration issue on its head to prove the greatness of the country. From The O’Reilly Factor: “I think America is great. You know how I know it’s great? You don’t have American refugees winding up on the shores of other countries. You actually have people wanting their children born here. America is a great country. The issue is: We could be even greater. We are not fulfilling our potential.” Conservatives everywhere should copy this down.
Now, admittedly, it can be challenging to put forth an optimistic vision when the other party is in control because if things are going so great, you should stick with them. There is a necessary balancing between saying things not being great today but have the capacity to be great in the not too distant future. There is a nuance to it that can be lost in a news cycle obsessed with 30 second soundbites. While I caution republicans from discussing the Reagan legacy too much since most Americans did not vote in the 1980 election (it was 35 year ago), there are lessons in his rhetoric that are still applicable. He succinctly framed all elections in one simple question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” This is an excerpt of his answer in that debate with President Carter (emphasis my own):
This country doesn’t have to be in the shape that it is in. We do not have to go on sharing in scarcity with the country getting worse off, with unemployment growing. We talk about the unemployment lines. If all of the unemployed today were in a single line allowing two feet for each of them, that line would reach from New York City to Los Angeles, California. All of this can be cured and all of it can be solved…I would like to have a crusade today, and I would like to lead that crusade with your help. And it would be one to take Government off the backs of the great people of this country, and turn you loose again to do those things that I know you can do so well, because you did them and made this country great. Thank you.
Reagan’s campaign was predicated on the argument the American people were great, and it was the government holding them back. By rolling back government and freeing the public from the shackles of high taxes, regulation and inflation, the country would flourish again. His was a campaign of hope not hatred, appealing to the intrinsic decency and aspiration of every individual. It was a theme he expounded upon in his Inaugural Address (emphasis added):
It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government. It is time for us to realize that we’re too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope.
We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we’re in a time when there are not heroes, they just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter, and they’re on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They’re individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life.
Now, I have used the words “they” and “their” in speaking of these heroes. I could say “you” and “your,” because I’m addressing the heroes of whom I speak — you, the citizens of this blessed land. Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God.
This optimism and unyielding faith in American public was the cornerstone of Reagan’s political philosophy and career. It is only fitting that in his final remarks to a Republican Convention in 1992, he poetically ratified this political doctrine (emphasis added):
A fellow named James Allen once wrote in his diary, “Many thinking people believe America has seen its best days.” He wrote that July 26, 1775. There are still those who believe America is weakening; that our glory was the brief flash of time called the 20th Century; that ours was a burst of greatness too bright and brilliant to sustain; that America’s purpose is past.
My friends, I utterly reject those views. That’s not the America we know. We were meant to be masters of destiny, not victims of fate. Who among us would trade America’s future for that of any other country in the world? And who could possibly have so little faith in our America that they would trade our tomorrows for our yesterdays?
Republican candidates and pundits can spend so much time waxing nostalgically about the Reagan era it can feel like they would trade our future for our past. This tendency, coupled with such an angry, divisive campaign, can leave people thinking the best is behind us, especially considering the crumbling of the Obama Presidency we are witnessing. This is a problem, and we will not win if we cannot put forward a credible and compelling vision for the country. Unfortunately, we are constantly sidetracked by the boorish shenanigans of Trump who is either lobbing insults, threatening to sue, or more recently maligning Muslims. We are a movement that believes in Shining Cities not Gestapos, and he is a charlatan masquerading as a conservative. We need to start aggressively calling him out for it.
Democrats have mastered identity politics, dividing voters against each other to cobble together winning coalitions. To combat this, republicans shouldn’t try to beat them at their own game but offer a unifying message, which is more constructive when it comes to actually governing. Rather than betting on government to manage the decline, I want to bet on the public to make this a better country. It has been a winning bet for over two centuries, and while we are suffering from abject incompetence in the White House, I see no reason to stop placing this bet. Where are the world’s greatest new companies from Facebook to Uber built? What country has the most hard-working, innovative citizenry? What country serves as the inspiration for the oppressed in the world? The questions can go on and on, but the answer remains the same: the United States.
Do we have challenges? Obviously, from a broken entitlement system to stagnant wages to an aggressive China and resurgent Russia. These challenges are not unusually grave, and we are better positioned than any other country on the earth with a better mix of personal freedom, economic ingenuity, military might, and demographics than any other nation. Without a shadow of a doubt, our best days are ahead of us. Decline is a choice not a sentence. Conservatives need to renew our faith in the future of the country. There is no reason for 58% of republican voters to feel like our best days are behind us. That is a failure of our political leadership to lay out a compelling vision. We need to move away from angry rhetoric, rebuke Trump’s asinine assertions, and once again explain our faith in the American people and how returning money and power to them can undo the damage Obama has done.
Pessimistic conservatism is a non-starter and ideologically inconsistent. We can express anger at the failings of the Obama/Clinton policies while also pivoting to an optimistic agenda that ensures brighter days are ahead. It’s the only way to win.