The First Debate, Plus Mitt Romney Channeling Yuval Levin

That was quite a debate. There is a lot to say, so I’ll just throw out a few scattered thoughts:

(1) Mitt Romney has put a marker down on tax policy. He has no intention of reducing the revenue raised from high-earners relative to current policy. He does, however, intend to lower the statutory marginal tax rate. Many have argued that this is incompatible with Romney’s other stated goals, including reducing the taxation of capital income, etc. My sense is that the marker he laid down in Denver debate will take precedence over the plan he rolled out before the Michigan GOP primary. 

(2) President Obama invoked the Clinton-era tax rates. Yet Ezra Klein of Wonkbook has observed that the Obama administration is committed to raising taxes on high-earners well beyond the Clinton-era tax rates:

The end result is that he wants to raise almost twice as much money from folks making more than $250,000 than he’d get from simply letting the Bush tax cuts expire for this group. So overall taxes for them are going to be much higher than simply going back to the Clinton-era rates would suggest.

(3) Romney effectively defended the concept of Medicaid block grants, but he did not make a case for his proposed growth rate. This was a vulnerability that President Obama did not exploit. Generally, Romney proved more deft in exploiting such moments of weakness.

(4) I was particularly impressed by Romney’s remarks on regulations, including his reference to the ways in which business owners depend on clear, reliable regulatory rules of the world. He made clear that he opposes excessive regulations. I’d love to see Romney explain how excessive regulation can insulate incumbent firms from competition, but that would’ve been rather ambitious given the setting and the format. Broadly, Romney seem to making the case for “smart regulation” — an important distinction to make, and one that made him sound sane and constructive.

(5) Romney also seemed willing to engage on the question of how we ought to reform or replace Dodd-Frank, and he noted some of its more promising features as well as its failures. This is a real opportunity for Romney and I hope his campaign pursues it seriously.

(6) I found Romney’s remarks on the role of government strangely affecting:

Well, first, I love great schools. Massachusetts, our schools are ranked number one of all 50 states. And the key to great schools: great teachers. So I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers. Every school district, every state should make that decision on their own.

Though Romney didn’t offer a systematic case for competitive federalism, i.e., a federalism that is designed to protect the interests of citizens and families, not of states as states, his occasional gestures in the direction of the virtues of state-by-state solutions were much appreciated.

The role of government — look behind us: the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of those documents.

This is a notion that resonates deeply with conservatives, including Tea Party conservatives of a highly individualistic bent and the more communitarian conservatives we often find in Mormon communities.

First, life and liberty. We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means the military, second to none. I do not believe in cutting our military. I believe in maintaining the strength of America’s military.

Granted, this glosses over the question of how large a military we need to protect the security of Americans, but it’s a vivid reminder that basic physical security is indispensable to a free society.

Second, in that line that says, we are endowed by our Creator with our rights — I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country.

Many on the left were confused by the outrage over the birth control mandate controversy. But to many conservatives, in contrast, there was a pervasive sense that a delicate compromise was being endangered. As the state has expanded, it has co-opted many civil society institutions. Catholic Charities USA, for example, spent $4.2 billion in 2009, and the source of roughly $2.8 billion of that amount was government, as John DiIulio Jr. recently observed. So encroaching on the ability of an organization like this to operate in accordance with its religious principles threatened to reveal that the reach of the state into intimate and associational life is actually much greater than has been commonly understood. 

That statement also says that we are endowed by our Creator with the right to pursue happiness as we choose. I interpret that as, one, making sure that those people who are less fortunate and can’t care for themselves are cared by — by one another. We’re a nation that believes that we’re all children of the same God. And we care for those that have difficulties — those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that disabled, we care for them. And we look for discovery and innovation, all these things desired out of the American heart to provide the pursuit of happiness for our citizens.

In a somewhat awkward way, Romney was celebrating not just the welfare state, but the various ways in which communities, including the Mormon community, come together to care for vulnerable members. And he connected this to the discovery and innovation driven by private firms and other voluntary associations that helps meet the needs and wants of ordinary people. 

But we also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams, and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals. And what we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a trickle-down government approach which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it’s not working. And the proof of that is 23 million people out of work. The proof of that is one out of six people in poverty. The proof of that is we’ve gone from 32 million on food stamps to 47 million on food stamps. The proof of that is that 50 percent of college graduates this year can’t find work. The path we’re taking is not working. It is time for a new path.

Romney tried to take founding principles and place them in the context of our current understandings of our obligations to each other. In a sense, I think he was invoking Yuval Levin’s take on “the real debate” undergirding our ideological disagreements:

Simply put, to see our fundamental political divisions as a tug of war between the government and the individual is to accept the progressive premise that individuals and the state are all there is to society. The premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between those two, and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space is a prime purpose of government. The real debate forced upon us by the Obama years​—​the underlying disagreement to which the two parties are drawn despite themselves​—​is in fact about the nature of that intermediate space, and of the mediating institutions that occupy it: the family, civil society, and the private economy.

This is how Yuval distills the debate between left and right. First, the left:

In each case, the idea is to level the complex social topography of the space between individuals and the government, breaking up tightly knit clusters of citizens into individuals and then uniting all of those individuals under the national banner​—​allowing them to be free of the oppressive authority of family or community norms while building solidarity through the common experience of living as equal citizens of a great nation. Dependence on people you know is oppressive, the progressives imply, because it always comes with moral and social strings. But dependence on larger and more generic and distant systems of benefits and rules is liberating​—​it frees people from the undue moral sway of traditional social institutions even as it frees them from material want. A healthy dose of moral individualism combined with a healthy dose of economic collectivism make for a powerful mix of freedom and equality.

Conservatives have always resisted such a gross rationalization of society, however, and insisted that local knowledge channeled by evolving social institutions​—​from civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, to charitable enterprises and complex markets​—​will make for better material outcomes and a better common life. The life of a society consists of more than moving resources around, and what happens in that space between the individual and the government is vital​—​at least as much a matter of character formation as of material provision and wealth creation. Moral individualism mixed with economic collectivism only feels like freedom because it liberates people from responsibility in both arenas. But real freedom is only possible with real responsibility. And real responsibility is only possible when you depend upon, and are depended upon by, people you know. It is, in other words, only possible in precisely that space between the individual and the state that the left has long sought to collapse.

As abstract as this might sound, I think it is the basic distinction Romney was working towards in his more homespun remarks, and I found it very encouraging. This is as good a time as any to strongly recommend that you read Yuval’s essay, which is nothing if not timely — and which resonated with and greatly refined my own thinking about these larger questions.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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