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Keep It Simple, Team Romney

The core Republican message is a winning one.

May 28, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 35 • By JAY COST
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So the general idea is simple. Obama has failed because he subscribes to an outdated, ineffective governing philosophy, one that the country has consistently rejected for almost half a century—and one that is now failing throughout the world. And worse, Obama ignored the warning sent by voters in the 2010 midterms. That was a clarion call for Obama to tack back to the center as Clinton did in 1995. Obama ignored it. Instead, he doubled down on failed policies. So there is no reason to expect things to be any different in a second Obama term.

This has to be the message Romney carries around the country. It is the best and most persuasive way to connect public dissatisfaction with the state of the nation, disappointment with Obama’s handling of the biggest issues, and the widespread belief that the president is too liberal. If he can convince the average swing voter that Obama is too far to the left to fix the big problems the country faces, he is almost home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But “almost” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. How does Romney close the deal? It can only be by promising to do the things that Obama cannot do. And for that, he has to stretch deep into the history of the Republican party, to understand why this coalition, whose original purpose was to stop the spread of slavery, has endured for 150 years.

If the core Republican philosophy were a constellation, it would be anchored by three stars: William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge, and, above all, Ronald Reagan. Each of them articulated the basic beliefs of the Republican party in ways that led to decisive victories. McKinley promised voters in 1896 that he was, as one supporter put it, the “advance agent of prosperity.” Coolidge famously proclaimed that the “business of America is business.” And Reagan’s economic policy is so famous and enduring that the party faithful have embraced it as “Reaganomics.”

Romney can follow their examples. All three of these leaders reminded the country that the single most progressive force in the world is American private enterprise. That is the great engine of prosperity in the United States, and ultimately the means by which we become the “more perfect union” that the preamble to the Constitution promises. None of these presidents promised a laissez-faire state of nature, contrary to the claims of the Democrats then and now. They understood that the government has a positive role to play in encouraging private enterprise—not for the sake of profits for the few, but to assure growth that lifts the entire populace.

Romney has to articulate these core ideals. He has to tell Americans that government is not the solution to our problems, and that we ourselves hold those solutions. We can fix the economy, tackle the deficit, and improve our health care system. The job of the government is to facilitate this, not to do it for us.

Romney has to offer a simple justification for every policy he proposes, namely: This will unleash the great engine of the American economy and help us all in the long run. 

And he might keep in mind the experience in Europe, where the left on that continent has managed to turn the concept of “austerity” into a kind of four-letter word. This was not a hard thing to do. During times of economic crisis, people do not want to see the government cutting back simply to balance its own books. Instead, they want to see the government do more. For liberals, this of course means ever higher deficit spending. But for conservatives in the McKinley-Coolidge-Reagan tradition, it means smart deregulation to help businesses grow, tax cuts that foster growth, a trade policy that benefits ailing American industries, and so on. Put another way, Romney has to promise a vigorous government, but not one that seeks to tax, spend, and regulate; rather, it should be actively seeking ways to help private citizens solve their own problems.

This is where Romney’s experience can play a valuable role. Liberal Democrats, naturally, think working in venture capital is a bad thing—unless, of course, they are accepting campaign contributions from those very same “vultures”—but Romney has a positive story to tell about his time at Bain Capital, one that syncs with the broader narrative he wants to articulate about a Romney presidency. The value of Bain for the Romney candidacy is that a lot of what he did there was give promising entrepreneurs the capital they needed to make their businesses work. That’s exactly what he wants to do with the whole country—not fix the problems himself, but give the people the tools they need to fix them. 

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