We’re all familiar with the depressing statistics. Over three years with unemployment above 8%. A dropping labor-force participation rate. Persistently large and growing trade deficits. A collapse in family net-worth and family incomes. A lack of opportunity for America’s young people. Year after year after year of trillion-plus deficits. Social Security and Medicare going bankrupt even faster than expected.
An undercurrent of this election — one the Romney campaign has grasped — is the debate about whether to accept as normal the past decade’s hollowing out of the middle class and the downgrading of prosperity. The “new normal” is one of skyrocketing gains for the few and treading water for the many and a stagnation in growth for the economy as a whole. This outcome is not necessarily the result of free markets (indeed, it has taken considerable government intervention to arrive at the current state), and it also imperils long-term growth: the rich may have absorbed almost all the economic gains of the president’s anemic recovery, but the economic pie is smaller than it could have been.
If this pattern continues, we might expect the same, but even more so. Escalating gas prices and debt, accelerating bankruptcy for public entitlements, growing instability in the financial system, a weakening of American influence abroad, diminished employment levels, and increased social alienation — all those things could await us if current trends remain unchecked.
The president’s current policies have hardly lived up to the promises he made for his first term. There is unfortunately not much reason to believe that his hazy promises for a second term will lead to significantly better results. Throughout much of this campaign, President Obama has chosen to focus on annihilating his possible Republican opponents rather than putting forward a comprehensive vision for a second term (and raising taxes a bit on upper-income earners does not constitute a broad vision). The first debate was to Barack Obama what the Iowa caucuses were to Hillary Clinton: it punctured the aura of inevitability and brought to the forefront many heretofore lingering undercurrents in the popular mind. The president had hoped to rally the American people behind the ambiguous “forward” — forward into some territory of fog. This debate caused many Americans to believe that perhaps there would be benefits to leaving the current, depressing path and finding a new way. Perhaps the president really was that disengaged and out of effective public policy ideas. Perhaps, they wondered, that foggy Forward pointed not to the Promised Land but to just another swamp.
In the closing month of the campaign, Mitt Romney has solidified his image as a pragmatic defender of prosperity for all. The notion of an opportunity-driven prosperity has been a central concept for the Republican Party since its founding. Abraham Lincoln advocated for an industrialized economy of upward mobility, one where “all should have an equal chance.” Calvin Coolidge spoke on behalf of a vibrant economy and hopeful private sector. Ike Eisenhower invested in an economic architecture that would help spur on the egalitarian postwar boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Ronald Reagan called for a “healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunity for all Americans.” Reagan insisted that “all must share in the bounty of a revived economy.”
It is this tradition that Romney has most fully embraced, and polling shows the electoral dividends paid by this embrace. For the first time in the campaign, Romney holds a sustained lead over the president. A slender lead in the week before Election Day is no guarantee of victory at the ballot box, but any lead is better than being behind. Whatever the immediate political advantages of embracing popular prosperity (and I believe there are many), there are even more pressing reasons of principle and policy to take a stand for a commonly enjoyed prosperity.