In 2008, Republicans scoffed at the “rhetoric” of an inexperienced candidate who promised to “take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union, and building a better America.” Yet that unifying rhetoric helped propel Barack Obama to a resounding victory; he became the first Democrat to win the White House and a majority of the popular vote since 1976.
Now seeking re-election, and with his signature policy initiatives stubbornly unpopular, the president is hitting the campaign trail with the same theme of unity, this time served with a side of gritty resolve: “We know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility. That’s an America built to last.”
The high oratory and thin substance of the State of the Union address showed just how badly the Obama campaign wants to prevent the 2012 election from becoming a referendum on the president’s first term. Instead they want to paint it as an historic choice between angry, hands-off-my-stuff Republicans and self-sacrificing, we’re-all-in-this-together Democrats. If Republicans let that happen, they will lose and lose badly.
While Mitt Romney seems reluctant to make a common-good case for conservatism, the resurgent Rick Santorum has begun to show signs that he can do so effectively. (Disclosure: Santorum is a former EPPC colleague.) Regardless of who wins the nomination, the GOP must rediscover a way of speaking persuasively about how personal liberty, limited government, and yes, free markets, benefit America as a whole. It is a case Americans have been making since before the Founding. If Republicans can’t make that argument now, they don’t deserve to win. If they don’t make that argument, they won’t.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own.