In 2008, young voters were inspired by Barack Obama and helped elect him president. But Obama’s failure to live up to his promise (and his promises) has led to widespread disillusionment not only among the young, but with voters of all ages who were captivated by him four years ago. Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney now has the opportunity to claim the mantle of idealism that Obama has fumbled. In so doing, Romney could capture a significant and potentially decisive share of the voters who handed Obama the presidency last time out.
I have written in the past about how President Obama’s supposed idealism has been unmasked for its hollowness, shallowness and callowness. We were promised post-partisanship but have been subjected to hyper-partisanship instead. And I can think of few groups that have been hurt more by the president’s policies than the idealistic young people who so fervently supported him. It is the young, after all, who will be used as the piggy bank to fund Obamacare if it survives, and who will be burdened by the unconscionable levels of debt that this administration has run up. More than half of college graduates under 25 are now unemployed or underemployed; it is likely that many are losing the “hope” that drove them to the polls in 2008.
It is now incumbent upon Romney to offer a hopeful, youthful, idealistic and optimistic vision of conservatism. Stressing the inherent (but underappreciated) idealism of conservatism would not cause idealists on the left to convert en masse to idealists on the right. But it could be an important way to appeal to swing voters and even persuadable liberals without turning off the base. Celebrating the idealism of conservatism would indeed turn on the base. And it would be an effective way to expose and counter the cynicism masquerading as idealism that has been churning out of the Obama campaign machine.
“A Hopeful, Youthful, Idealistic and Optimistic Conservatism” is actually the title of the last chapter of my new book, Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals. As a former liberal, I know firsthand that conservatism can offer a home for the frustrated idealism of liberals who ultimately discover the logical contradictions of their beliefs. The book — with chapters on Obamacare, school choice, immigration, environmentalism, economic and fiscal policy and foreign policy — makes the case for conservative policies using arguments that would have resonated with me when I was a liberal.
I’ve noticed that conservatives are more focused on what they’re for and liberals are more focused on who they’re for. A person is likely to define himself as a conservative, for example, because he stands for the free market, liberty, limited government and strong national defense. A person is likely to define himself as a liberal, on the other hand, because he’s for the middle class, the poor, working people, women, minorities, etc. That difference in approach explains why it is possible for conservative policies to be the best way to achieve liberal ideals. As I demonstrate in the book, what conservatives are for happens to be the best way to help who liberals are for (and the rest of us as well).
For example, liberals claim to be for the poor, the working class and the middle class. The most urgent need in these communities is jobs, and President Obama’s hostility to job creators has harmed those who have been struggling to find work. Conservatives understand that when government usurps more and more of the private sector’s role in creating jobs, it is not only unsustainable, but it adds to the already crushing debt burden that we’re passing on to our children and grandchildren. Conservatives understand that if we don’t get control over that debt burden by reining in the growth of government, government will be unable to support the neediest in our society in future generations. Conservatives also recognize that government revenues grow naturally with a healthy and growing private sector, and that it is counterproductive to try to raise revenues by overburdening a stagnant and struggling private sector. That means that we have to avoid the excessive taxation and regulation that makes it too costly and risky for the private sector to make the investments that create jobs for those who desperately need them. Conservatives also understand the dynamics that enable the private sector to create prosperity and squeeze out inefficiency, and that we can apply those dynamics to help the segments of our society that need them the most. In particular, we can apply those dynamics to empower poor people with consumer choice — in education, in health care — rather than weakening and infantilizing people with government dependence.
Liberals typically attack conservative policies on the basis of their supposed impacts on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. Conservatives should not back down from defending our policies — and attacking liberal policies — on those very terms. The arguments are on our side, not theirs. Their policies are emasculating our private sector and bankrupting our public sector. This is impeding the creation of jobs in struggling communities, and will cripple the ability of government to provide a proper safety net in the future. The people who will be hurt most by Obamanomics are the very people that it is supposedly designed to help. The rich will be fine in spite of Obamanomics; the poor will not.
Not every voter is looking for idealism out of Romney. Many believe that Romney’s practical executive experience, particularly in business, is the perfect antidote to the empty idealism and economic tone-deafness of the current president. Romney is right to stress his impressive private sector credentials. But to cede idealism to the Obama campaign is to be complicit in their dishonest attempt to pass off their cynical class-warfare policies — which will not help the poor, the working class or the middle class — as idealism.
Does Romney understand the importance of seizing the mantle of idealism from our faltering president, and not merely running as a highly competent technocrat? Romney answered that question with his speech on the night he became the presumptive nominee:
“We will stop the unfairness of urban children being denied access to the good schools of their choice; the unfairness of politicians giving taxpayer money to their friends’ businesses; the unfairness of requiring union workers to contribute to politicians not of their choosing; the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve; and we will stop the unfairness of one generation passing larger and larger debts on to the next.”
Yes. Romney clearly gets it.
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of “Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.” Follow him on Twitter @DavidBCohen1.