On November 6, President Obama won by three percentage points, about the same margin as President Bush eight years earlier—after which the electorate moved in a radically different direction. In other words, this was a close reelection for an incumbent whose future success is by no means assured. And yet, to many on the right, the result feels terrifyingly historic, as though it represents an ideological and partisan Rubicon across which the United States has crossed.
Such a feeling isn’t rooted in fact. It comes instead out of a sense of disbelief on the right. Those who opposed Barack Obama didn’t think it was possible for so many Americans to vote for him after the failures and overreaches of his first term. That the majority did is taken as a sign of various things: The country has definitively moved to the left. The electorate wants goodies. The media put their collective fingers on the scale. In our last issue, I suggested the answer was simpler: The Republicans got completely outplayed after nominating a candidate uniquely unable to engage the president and the nation in a conversation about his own record and the nation’s future.
But even so, the right is letting itself off too easily by blaming changes in the country and the weaknesses of a candidate few loved.
As my colleague Abe Greenwald says, the right has failed to articulate the key element of any political and ideological movement: What will the policies advocated by Republicans and conservatives do to improve the lot of the American people?
Clearly, too many Americans do not think the right has the right answer.
We know this because swing voters who put Obama over the top did not think he had done a good job, but they voted for him anyway. That can only be because they believed the Republicans would either do about the same or worse.
The Obama campaign prevailed in part because not enough people in the country believe the Republican Party has enough to say to them about how to make their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren better.
Take Mitt Romney’s preachment on the economy. His goal, he said, was to loosen the reins of onerous regulation and excessive taxation in order to free up entrepreneurial energies and spirits. Of course he’s right as a matter of policy; freeing up capital and putting slack in the reins that hold entrepreneurs back are the keys to economic growth.
But like too many other Republicans and conservatives, Romney confused those important policy changes with “the American dream.” Creating a business is not the American dream. The American dream is the national belief that if you work hard, you can improve your material and spiritual condition. The structure of the nation’s laws and the promise contained in the Declaration of Independence assure that you will not be held back by the economic, geographic, or social circumstances of the family into which you were born.
People can achieve the American dream in a hundred different ways, of which creating a business is one—but not the only one, thank God, because (a) most people are not entrepreneurs and (b) many entrepreneurs fail. Business creation is vital to the economy, but creating a business is not the definition of an American success story.
The task for the right over these next four years is to get very specific about how conservative ideas and policies will make the lives of Americans better and make the American dream more achievable. Because, in the end, that is what this is all about, isn’t it?