From common disappointment to popular prosperity

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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.

The American celebration of capitalism depends upon the assumption that life can get better for all Americans. Rather than struggling over pieces of a static or shrinking pie, all can gain ground, as the fruits of prosperity are broadly shared. An opportunity-driven society will be one where people have more faith in themselves and their fellow citizens, where innovation flourishes, and where a strong civil space complements the actions of the government. Such a social environment would seem important for achieving a conservative vision of a relatively decentralized government and a vibrant private sector.

A strong economy in turn finances the safety net of private charity and public benefits. Contrary to what some on the left may claim, the most pressing threat to the social safety net is poor long-term growth. Government may have a role in stepping forward in the short term in order to compensate for a poor economy, and, in the short term, it can afford to do so. Increased payouts in unemployment benefits in the recessions of the 1980s and the recession in the early 1990s were certainly affordable, for example. But the health of government finances in part depends upon the health of the economy as a whole; a long-term economic stagnation imperils the ability of the nation to live up to its entitlement promises. For instance, with strong economic growth, Social Security as it currently stands could be more or less viable for many decades into the future. With the economic crawl of the present and recent past, it could easily go bankrupt well before 2030. If conservatives are serious about avoiding a debt crisis, getting back to healthy levels of growth would be the most obvious and perhaps most necessary step.

The Obama administration swept into office as the nation was in an economic free fall. Though the economy is no longer hemorrhaging jobs and GDP, it remains stuck just above neutral. The president has tried to distract from these economic doldrums, but the American people still see the overhanging pall of stagnation. If Governor Romney does emerge as the victor on Tuesday, it will in part be because he has convinced Americans that the disappointment and diminished expectations of the past decade, which have become so familiar, are not in fact fated — that they can be changed, and that Romney’s policies can change them. A sense of restored prosperity and a renewed civil compact could be key not only for putting Mitt Romney in the White House but also for replacing the bitter disappointment of despair with the better dawn of vigorous hope.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.