In an economy as lousy as this one, it’s easy to criticize a guy with an eight-figure income and a nine-figure net worth, especially if that guy — we’re talking about Mitt Romney here — says stuff like “I like firing people” and “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” In last month’s South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich tried stoking populist resentment against Romney, savaging the former governor for his lucrative career with a private equity firm. It wasn’t the most conservative line of attack, but for a while it seemed to be working.
Romney, for his part, has insisted time and again that he is “not going to apologize for being successful.” He’s been not apologizing for his success since at least 2010, when he published a campaign book titled “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.” He is constantly reminding voters that his wealth wasn’t inherited, but earned through hard work. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t really address the underlying and often unstated premise of attacks like Gingrich’s — an attack the Obama campaign will certainly take up with gusto if Romney becomes the GOP nominee — which is that Romney got rich at the expense of others.
Romney’s defiance may be enough to win over feisty primary voters, but winning swing voters in a general election is going to take much more than not saying sorry. The weakness in Romney’s “no apology” strategy is that it leaves the dubious premise — that he got rich at the expense of others — intact. So long as that premise goes unchallenged, Romney will sound as though he’s refusing to apologize for getting rich by making other people poor.
Nor is it the case that Romney has nothing better to offer. During the second Florida debate, Romney deployed his usual “no apology” tactic. But then, in his best moment in what was perhaps his best debate performance, he took it one step further: “Let’s get Republicans to say, ‘You know what? What you’ve accomplished in your life shouldn’t be seen as a detriment; it should be seen as an asset to help America.’” An asset to help America — Romney should be drumming that beat from here to Tampa.
Americans (including Republicans) know that their personal wellbeing is inextricably tied to the wellbeing of the various communities to which they belong, including the nation itself. Yet for some reason, Republicans seem uninterested — indeed, almost incapable — of speaking to the common good. Republicans are adept at making the case that their preferred policies, especially economic policies, are good for individuals. That’s a case they should continue to make. But they spend far too little time making the case that conservative policies are good for families, communities, and the country as a whole.
To be clear: This isn’t about changing conservative policy preferences; it’s about changing the way conservatives talk about the policies they already promote. From the debt to entitlements to Obamacare to high unemployment — the issues Republicans can win on all lend themselves to powerful appeals to the good of both individual citizens and the country as a whole. Republicans must argue explicitly and forcefully that the president’s administration has made America weaker, not stronger, and that their alternative policies will change that. Republicans must challenge the liberal myth that conservative policies are a drag on the common good, and the fatuous notion that the only way to form “a more perfect union” is for government to do and spend more.
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.