Trust the People
Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Put not your trust in judges—nor in other berobed or bejeweled personages. To the degree you trust anyone: Trust the people.
AP Mary Altaffer
Conservatives shouldn’t count on the Supreme Court to do our work for us on Obamacare. The Court may rule as it should, and strike down the mandate. But it may not. And even if it does, the future of health care in America—and for that matter, the future of limited government—depends ultimately on the verdict of the American people.
More concretely: While a defeat for Obamacare in the Court would be nice, the defeat of President Obama at the polls on November 6 is crucial. If electoral victory is achieved, Obamacare can and will be repealed—and more judges of a constitutionalist persuasion will be appointed by the next president. Indeed, one could almost say that a bad Court decision later this month would be a salutary reminder that here the people rule, and that persuading the people is the key task. As Lincoln put it in his first debate with Stephen Douglas, “In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”
Which brings us to Mitt Romney. He’s had a good beginning to his general election campaign. But he could do more, it seems to us, to help mold public sentiment—to explain, to quote Lincoln again, “where we are, and whither we are tending,” so as to help us “better judge what to do, and how to do it.” He could do more to put his particular criticisms of the Obama administration in a broader context, and to frame his own proposals in a more comprehensive narrative. After all, Romney has to convince the American public that they need to do something they’re not usually inclined to do—replace a sitting president with a challenger. And unlike in 1980 and 1992, when the public was persuaded to do just that, the incumbent president has not been weakened by a primary opponent.
The burden for making this argument can’t be all Romney’s. It’s up to the entire conservative movement to make this case, and many are doing their part. But the presidential candidate can help. Why him? Why now? The answer has to be more than “gotcha” critiques of individual parts of the Obama record.
Conservatives were pleased by the tactical agility and rhetorical toughness of the Romney campaign last week, when he appeared before the shuttered Solyndra plant and called attention to that waste of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. But Democrats spent much of 1983 and 1984 chortling about the fraud, waste, and abuse that allegedly marked Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup (remember $600 toilet seats in military airplanes?). The citizens were willing to tolerate the waste because they judged Reagan’s defense buildup, and his foreign policy in general, a good idea. The task for Romney is to tie the particular abuses and errors of the Obama administration to its governing bad ideas. And then, and just as important, to lay out his better path forward.
Republican strategist David Winston asked an interesting question in a recent survey of 1,000 registered voters: “In thinking more specifically about how the economy is doing, which comes closer to your view?” Twenty-six percent chose “The economy is getting better, and the rate of progress is acceptable.” Thirty-two percent agreed with “The economy is not getting better at all.” A plurality, 40 percent, chose “The economy is getting better, but the rate of progress is still unacceptable.”
The result is at once heartening and chastening. This is a winnable election for Mitt Romney. But he can’t win simply by asserting that things are worse than they’ve ever been. He needs to win most of the 40 percent of the public who think things are getting better, if at an unacceptably slow rate. If Romney fails to present a compelling alternative, most of those 40 percent could say this: Well, we’re not happy about the pace of progress under Obama, but that rich Republican guy who’s sniping at the president doesn’t seem to have any better proposals or a clear vision—so perhaps we’d better stick with the guy we’ve got.
Sticking with the guy we’ve got would be a disaster—and not just because he’ll waste some more money on foolish solar energy projects. If Romney explains why where we are with Obama is unacceptable, why whither we are tending is even worse—and why his own alternative path forward is superior—then we trust the American people to make the right choice in November.
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