Glenn Beck’s rally, perhaps wisely in anticipation of liberal criticism, kept policy and partisanship out of it. The focus was on patriotism and a call for a spiritual revival. As the country pivots toward the homestretch of the midterm-election season and the warm-up to the 2012 campaign (Already? Unfortunately, yes), conservatives running for office or advising those who are may be wise to focus on a different sort of revival.
The Tea Party has come to be seen as merely a brake on liberal economic policy — don’t raise taxes, control spending, end bailouts. But it was, at its start, also a cry of opposition to what all of that foretold for America: the decline of self-reliance, risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and the creative destructiveness of capitalism that requires that we punish failure and reward success.
Conservative reformers are right to focus on limited government, entitlement reform, and spending control. There has never been a more receptive audience for that, thanks to Obama. But modern conservatism’s success, both in policy and electorally, did not come from being the green-eye-shade party. It stemmed from an enthusiasm and celebration of free markets and from policies that sought to unleash the potential of individuals, investors, and employers. And it was Reagan whose embrace of supply-side economics, free trade, and modest regulation unleashed an economic boom — and launched a conservative political vision that was inclusive and successful.
In a speech delivered at Hillsdale College in 1977, Reagan explained:
In spite of all the evidence that points to the free market as the most efficient system, we continue down a road that is bearing out the prophecy of Tocqueville, a Frenchman who came here 130 years ago. He was attracted by the miracle that was America. Think of it: Our country was only 70 years old and already we had achieved such a miraculous living standard, such productivity and prosperity, that the rest of the world was amazed. So he came here and he looked at everything he could see in our country, trying to find the secret of our success, and then went back and wrote a book about it. Even then, 130 years ago, he saw signs prompting him to warn us that if we weren’t constantly on the guard, we would find ourselves covered by a network of regulations controlling every activity. He said if that came to pass we would one day find ourselves a nation of timid animals with government the shepherd.
It all comes down to this basic premise: If you lose your economic freedom, you lose your political freedom and, in fact, all freedom. Freedom is something that cannot be passed on genetically. It is never more than one generation away from extinction. Every generation has to learn how to protect and defend it. Once freedom is gone, it is gone for a long, long time. Already, too many of us, particularly those in business and industry, have chosen to switch rather than fight.
This is both smart policy and the political formula for melding multiple strands that have been swirling around the conservative movement — American exceptionalism, defense of capitalism, and personal accountability. It is, at bottom, a platform for restoration — not necessarily a spiritual one, as Beck suggested, nor one based on defense of country in war, as Sarah Palin suggested. It is nevertheless a call to restore the economic vitality and the creative spirit of capitalism that made America a superpower and the envy of the world. The Republican presidential candidate who can put all that together, I would suggest, will be a formidable contender and a well-prepared combatant to face off against Obama.