Politics & Policy

Love on the Campaign Trail

Bachmann and Santorum get at the heart of the matter.

‘The more that we can do to love people, the better off . . .”

And with that, Michele Bachmann’s closing-round time ran out at the Republican roundtable debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. But I couldn’t help thinking that moderator Charlie Rose seemed to be wishing he were back at his usual PBS table for a one-on-one with her, to have the extended conversation he’s used to.

This wasn’t empty talk of hope and change. It was about what moves us. What motivates us. What makes us better, as individuals and as a country. Not by some kind of government mandate, but by a culture that helps us encourage one another, that protects us and lets liberty flourish. This is something revolutionary: not a federal program but empowering the smallest units to use their talents to create something.

#ad#The Minnesota congresswoman had been talking about her bio and how it related to her platform. “We went to below poverty when my parents divorced. And my mother worked very hard. We all did. We all got jobs. And we were able to work our way through college. And — and eventually my husband and I started a business.” The upward-mobility American dream, the one so many out-of-work Americans want to believe in in these challenging times.

“We have broken hearts for at-risk kids, Charlie,” she went on. “That’s why we took 23 foster children into our home. I believe the best solutions are the ones closest to home. If we reach out as individuals to help people and have broken hearts for people and care for them on a personal basis, then we don’t need big government to step in and do that job.” She painted a portrait of who she is and what motivates her, and by doing so, she pointed to the heart of political and economic matters.

In the same debate, Rick Santorum drove the point, literally, home: “The biggest problem with poverty in America — and we don’t talk about [that] here, because it’s an economic discussion — and that is the breakdown of the American family. You want to look at the poverty rate among families that have two — that have a husband and wife working in them? It’s 5 percent today. A family that’s headed by one person? It’s 30 percent today. We need to do something, and we need to talk about economics. The home — the word ‘home’ in Greek is the basis of the word ‘economy.’ It is — it is the foundation of our country. We need to have a policy that supports families, that encourages marriage.”

These were powerful words. It’s not about being in people’s bedrooms or enforcing a moral code. It’s about acknowledging that there are fundamental, traditional institutions that work. And not because Rick or Michele or your pastor says so. This is not Greek to good demographic sense.

“What happens in the home doesn’t stay in the home; it ripples out into the broader economy,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and co-author of a new study, “The Sustainable Demographic Dividend.” “Declines in fertility and marriage, for instance, are heavily implicated in our current global fiscal challenges. In much of the affluent West, the state is struggling to foot the bill for surging elderly populations with a shrinking or stagnating workforce. It’s also struggling to pay for the fallout of family breakdown, which manifests itself in the form of more police, more jails, more family courts, and more public aid to families affected by divorce or an out-of-wedlock birth.”

This is not a poll-tested talking point, and not all of the traditional Republican base is in agreement. But it happens to be true. “There are obvious tensions between those free marketers who have problems with objective morality and those social conservatives who have a bad habit of blaming the market economy for many of society’s problems,” says Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute. “But it seems to me that free societies characterized by a robust market economy, strong civil associations, and a limited state need (a) market institutions underpinned by a commitment to liberty and property rights and (b) social institutions that are characterized by unapologetically nonliberal conceptions of family and associational life. . . . Large, expansionist states tend to undermine not just the market but also civil society and strong families.”

I’ve become a firm believer in the idea that if you see something good, you should say something about it. So: Thank you, Rick. Thank you, Michele.

Conventional wisdom has it that Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican nominee. One of the first times I spent some extended time with him, he was governor of Massachusetts, and he was speaking at an event organized by the Family Research Council. It was at Boston’s Tremont Temple Baptist Church, once part of the Underground Railroad, and just a stone’s throw from the statehouse. Romney focused on the traditional family in his remarks. He made the kinds of connections Bachmann and Santorum did at that roundtable in New Hampshire — which my friend Larry Kudlow said looked a lot like a future Romney Cabinet table: It’s a talented crew with the good ideas needed to help turn things around.

Presidential campaigns can be wonderfully infuriating, as the civic-minded meet the candidates, in interviews and debates and on the trail. Some of these meetings allow for a more extended and penetrating discussion than others. Around a table at Dartmouth, there was a good start. Focus on the family — build a solid pedestal of examined lives and loving support — and you might even rebuild an economy, with a generosity that can spread like wildfire.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.

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