I am frustrated by the recent slew of writing I’ve read from very conservative writers. Fueled by anger over the recent election results, they lament an America that is now gone: an America of freedom and self-reliance, an America that was not content being "dependent on the government." The less angry are more strategic, asking how a traditionally noninclusive party can adjust to an electorate in which whites are the minority. They seem to not ask whether the alarmist, defeatist rhetoric of their more extreme contingent precludes this goal of inclusion. Blacks and Hispanics are over-represented in low-income communities, and the Republican platform this election has been driven by indifference, or at times contempt, for the less privileged.
When Mitt Romney was videotaped dismissing 47% of the American people as hopeless moochers, he alienated a large portion of the American electorate. I don't want to talk the tape to death because it already has been, but it was important in that it cemented a narrative of Romney that had already been fabricated by the left in the media, but also that had already been formed by conservative commentators. Rick Santelli's Tea Party rant on CNBC focused the blame of the financial crisis on the bailout of financially panicked homeowners that he called "losers" not the bankers that caused the crisis; Ann Coulter said in an interview on Fox News that "single women look to the government to be their husbands"; Paul Ryan, the star of today's Republican Party, has said he became involved in public service because of a 'philosophy' that asserts the selfishness of the individual as the only tenable building block of society; Sarah Palin wondered why people thought it was acceptable to vote for a future in which we go further into debt. But these people are her answer: because the alternative is so morally deplorable that even if someone believes in a smaller government and less spending, they can’t trust this party — this manifestation of conservatism — to do it moderately and responsibly.
The days of compassionate conservatism are over. The Republican ticket this year was represented by a multi-millionaire (who, absent the 47% comments, could have avoided the corporate jerk optics) and a man who was known for categorizing the American public into “makers and takers” and basing his budget off of cutting from low-income services. It’s hard to remember an era of American conservatism that acknowledged poverty or the less well-off as a problem in the United States, let alone made programs designed for the lower classes priorities.
And while I largely believe the more moderate conservatives I know when they say these are extreme examples not representative of the party as a whole, I would suggest they choose a presidential candidate who can be more convincing on that count next time. Mitt Romney's campaign only started mentioning the problem of poverty (never inequality, lest that sound too close to "redistribution") after the tape was released. He scurried to paint his comments as concerns over the growing number of people on food stamps. How would he solve the problem? Jobs! Of course. But his answer was proposed with enough Romney-style 'details' (that is, lack thereof) that it would only be logical to gather his lack of real commitment to these social ills.
It would be shocking in today’s political climate to hear a Republican giving George W. Bush’s 1999 speech, “The Duty of Hope.” He called it “destructive” to think that “if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved. An approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than ‘Leave us alone.’” He continued: “We have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity, both in our lives and in our laws. Americans will never write the epitaph of idealism. It emerges from our nature as a people, with a vision of the common good beyond profit and loss.”
We live in an era of politics where those same ideas, expressed in Barack Obama’s speeches, mean out-of-touch idealism at best, and content dependency at worst. It could perhaps be the dire economic straits the United States finds itself in; we are indeed realizing we cannot afford spending on everything that upsets or troubles us. But has the Republican party taken this too far? As Bush said, Americans will never write the epitaph of idealism. The head-for-the-hills raving about the coming economic collapse cannot win an election. There are plenty of people who are not content to write off some members of society as a lost cause — whether through 47% comments or dismissing the health care problems that used to exist in America as unworthy of our attention.
And now that Republicans have lost the election, they find themselves in the same unappealing trap, wondering what has happened to that America of yore that valued self-reliance and hard work. And herein lies their biggest problem: their failure to recognize that perhaps the American people are as traditional as ever. That they value free enterprise and the power of the individual, but think that it is either illogical or morally reprehensible to turn a blind eye to those that will inevitably “lose” in an economy without regulation and in a government without compassion.
And I want this to be heard not because we need more polarization, but because conservatives are very right about a lot of the problems they would like the president and Congress to take more seriously. Our entitlement spending is growing too quickly. In 1980, 30% percent of the American people received government benefits, while 49% of people do today. Simply allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire would not be enough to counter even one year’s budget deficit (as John Giokaris points out).
But people will not trust a Republican Party built on Michelle Malkin’s contention that, “’Compassionate conservatism’ and fiscal conservatism are not compatible. Never will be.” This is the idea that won out after Bush became the laughing stock of American politics. After he turned a $236 billion budget surplus into a deficit and utterly failed people in Louisiana after Katrina. This incompatibility is the idea on which Republicans have built the harshest and least electable agenda ever.
I don’t even think Mitt Romney believes his 47% comments. I think Romney is a kind man, and someone who seems to be guided by the noblest principles of his faith. I believed my conservative friends when they told me Romney was only pandering to what the people at his fundraiser wanted to hear. And that, of course, is the problem. With a high unemployment rate, and 60% of people thinking we’re headed in the wrong direction, this election should have been a steal for Romney. Instead, he was propelled by a brand of ruthless free market economics and a party that makes a joke out of acknowledging social injustices. It is undoubtedly tough to find a balance between cutting spending and ensuring equality of opportunity and a viable safety net. But a Republican won’t be able to win an election until they acknowledge that we cannot neglect either.