The drama of the past three weeks has revealed a vein of despair and rage among conservatives. I share their feelings about what is happening to the country, even as I believe their tactics have made things worse (only temporarily one hopes).
Is America gradually becoming a slow-growth, high-unemployment, sclerotic, bureaucratically top-heavy nation like France, Italy, and Great Britain? Yes. Was the nation already stumbling under the weight of unsustainable promises made in the form of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and government pensions before Obama added another entitlement? Yes. Is the U.S. receding as a world power in favor of Russia and China? Yes. Is the federal government encouraging dependency through prolonged unemployment, welfare, and food-stamp benefits? Yes, yes, yes.
So take a stand over Obamacare, show how strongly you feel, shut it down? Republicans (there is no “Republican establishment” despite the fulminations of the direct-mail and talk-radio types) followed that script. Senator Ted Cruz and others argued that the reason Obamacare still stands is because Republicans have been too timid to resist it. They promised that drawing a line on defunding the law would lead to victory, as Senate Democrats folded and pressured Obama to do the same. How did that work out? Is Senator Cruz now a member of the “surrender caucus” because he did not contest the deal to end the disastrous shutdown?
According to polls, Americans are already convinced that Republicans are more principled than Democrats. A 2011 Pew survey found that the only category in which Republicans were viewed more favorably than Democrats was in having “strong principles.” Sixty-three percent agreed that the phrase accurately described Republicans, while 57 percent said the same about the Democrats. Republicans have conveyed their philosophy to voters. What they haven’t done is persuade them that their policies will improve the average voter’s life. Only 45 percent of respondents agreed that Republicans “look out for the country’s future,” while 51 percent said as much for the Democrats.
Among younger voters, expressing alarm about socialism is probably counter-productive. Chalk it up to liberal control of K–12 education, the increasing numbers of college graduates among the electorate, or Jon Stewart, but among the 18–29 set, the word socialism is viewed positively by 49 percent, versus only 46 percent who have a positive view of capitalism.
Conservatives are fond of citing polls suggesting that self-described conservatives outnumber self-described liberals two to one. There’s probably less there than meets the eye. The Pew poll, for example, found that 62 percent of Americans have a positive view of the word “conservative” versus only 50 percent for the word “liberal.” But 67 percent had a positive response to the word “progressive.”
My own sense is that most Americans give very little thought to political principles or ideologies. I wish they were all Hayekians, but they’re not. When they enter the voting booth, they’re asking: Will the streets be safer, taxes lower, the schools better, jobs more plentiful? Will the nation be stable or thrown into disorder?
Successful conservative candidates stress the real-world consequences of liberal versus conservative policies. Ideally, if Republicans had been able to field a candidate not inhibited by his own record of endorsing something like Obamacare in Massachusetts (though the comparison was overdone), they might have been better able to persuade voters that reelecting Obama meant higher health-insurance premiums, more dropped coverage, and bureaucratic incompetence.
Going forward, Republicans should be assembling clips of Barack Obama promising that his health reform would not add “one dime” to the deficit, would bring down premiums by an average of $2,500, and would solve the problem of the uninsured.
The disillusioned will have new reasons to listen. They may even be willing to give “progressivism” a failing grade.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2013 Creators Syndicate, Inc.