In 2010, Republicans won a historic victory in the midterm elections, gaining sixty-three seats in the House and six in the Senate. They netted six governorships and twenty state legislative bodies. Although local factors always matter, this was an unusually nationalized campaign, driven by widespread concern over President Obama’s trillion-dollar deficits, health care mandates, and bank takeovers. Unfortunately, Mitt Romney abandoned this argument in order to run a non-ideological campaign—with disastrous electoral results.
Now that President Obama has been re-elected, we can expect more of the same—probably a lot more. He will, quite reasonably, consider his victory an endorsement of his oft-articulated plans to raise taxes on the “wealthy” and a mandate to proceed full steam ahead with the implementation of his ponderous health care law, both of which will happen without any further action by Congress. And since the president’s unprecedented use of executive orders and regulatory discretion to circumvent the lawmaking process was not contested, we can expect him to continue to act unilaterally when Congress won’t go along.
But what if Mr. Romney had won? First and foremost, he would have had to live up to the promise of his “five-point plan,” relentlessly touted in the campaign’s final month, to deliver twelve million jobs. He also promised to repeal Obamacare (on “day one”), but made such a case against it that would lead any reasonable observer to believe that the $716 billion in Medicare cuts was his only real concern. Outflanking Democrats on Medicare spending may have focus-grouped well in Florida (though obviously not well enough) and dodged awkward comparisons between Obamacare and Romneycare, but it was not a good position from which to launch a serious reconsideration of the dependency state—and without at least fifty-one (and maybe sixty) votes in the Senate, “day one” would never come.
MSNBC hysteria aside, there was never any question of Mr. Romney rolling back government to its less intrusive days a century or two ago; it is not even clear that he would have taken us back to 2000 or 2008.
At every point in the campaign, Mr. Romney labored to reassure the wavering 2008 Obama supporter: “I’m not angry; I’m just disappointed—and it’s okay for you to be disappointed too.” A thoroughly decent man, he ran an honorable campaign. Conservatives, by and large, responded to Romney and his efforts by convincing themselves that his approach was good electoral politics, even if they wished he had said or done things differently.
Ultimately, election victories are only means to political ends. And the ends a Romney victory would have served are very limited: principally, denying President Obama a chance to more thoroughly install his policies. Yet might it have also reinforced the progressive premise that the government’s job is to manage the economy?
After all, the basic rationale for Romney’s campaign involved an argument not unlike this: “Your current manager is not performing to expectations in his job. Dismiss him and hire a new boss.” The rhetorical equation of the skills of statesmanship to those of business ownership was not hard to find; more sinister, some Republicans felt that this election was only and exclusively about pocketbook matters; all other concerns (read: social issues) were potential distractions, at best.
Can you blame Romney for taking up that argument? Obama, indeed, ran on a kind of economic nationalism that made frequent reference to government actions like the auto bailouts and intimations that the president was a “warrior for the middle class,” whose greatest achievement was appointing the right technocrats to “prevent a second Great Depression.” In his last-minute, high-gloss brochure (intended to rebut critics who charged he had no real second-term agenda) is a distillation of the policies pursued the last four years, a manifesto of continued economic interventionism.
During the Virginia debate over the ratification of the Constitution, Patrick Henry reminded the assembly: “You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of government.” For most of our history, the American people have understood that while prosperity and military might may be the fruits of liberty, they are not the “direct end of government,” as Romney and Obama seemingly agreed, right to the end.
Was that really the best we could get out of this campaign? Would making a serious case against this imperial-managerial presidency have made the results even worse? Had the winning arguments of 2010 become irremediably stale despite two more years of fresh offenses against liberty and the Constitution?
Mr. Romney’s concession speech said it all: “This election is over, but our principles endure. I believe that the principles upon which this nation was founded are the only sure guide to a resurgent economy and to renewed greatness.”
Next time: freedom first.
David Corbin is a professor of politics and Matthew Parks an assistant professor of politics at The King’s College, New York City.
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