By the time of the next presidential election four million new voters will be eligible to cast their ballots.
They were all born in 1994.
The college students and young professionals of 2012 will have very little memory of a pre-9/11 America, including its political scene, save for the occasional famous event or speech mentioned in High School history books, but even then only superficially. They may know that Clinton got friendly with an intern, and that Bush 42 took us to the first Gulf War, but the real implications and nuances will be left to explanation from (largely left-leaning) teachers. Their real-world political experience is confined to the current and previous administration. For them, George W. Bush is the standard bearer for the Republican party, and they have grown up watching the Matt Damons and Jon Stewarts of the world tear him apart.
Young Americans are watching to see if the Democratic party can walk the talk; if they are really a voice for a new generation with a plan that can be embraced and championed. Fortunately for Republicans, Obama, far from being the moderate he espoused to be, is the poster-child model of big-government liberalism, and he, along with the Democratic congress, are going center-stage with massive spending and government expansion. Young people today are getting a modernized lesson on the old principles of separated powers, limited government and fiscal responsibility. If, according to Thomas Jefferson, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” this seems to be one of those times – if “blood” is taken metaphorically of course.
It began with Ronald Reagan, calling for a return to constitutional Federalism, but the movement quickly lost steam with two significant events. First, the Supreme Court ruled in a 1985 case that the only protections for states rights in the constitution was in the form of electing representatives and the president. Never mind that the sole purpose for the 10th Amendment, was to clarify state sovereignty in case “enumerated powers” didn’t get the point across. And never mind that the Framers wrote many times about the importance of the distinction between state and federal jurisdiction. State sovereignty was a top priority for a group of men whose initial intent was to merely make adjustments to the Articles of Confederation. (However, the Court actually began to uphold State’s Rights arguments in and since 1995)
The second blow to the short-lived conservative come back was the culture wars. While the dramatic social changes taking place in our nation required the attention, it shifted political issues from what government should or shouldn’t do to what individuals should or shouldn’t do, inherently spurring social conservatives to move toward legislative solutions – a reversal of limited-government principles – and pushing many fiscal conservatives to the Democratic or independent parties (take Ross Perot for example). The end result was a whole host of weak Republican leaders who seemed to stand for little more than God and guns. While God and guns are important, there are plenty of other legitimate and vital issues that rightfully belong on the Republican platform if conservatives are to fully embrace it.
In the wake of the 2008 presidential election an plethora of books, documentaries and rants about founding principles have littered political panorama. Even the Tea Party protests are aptly named to reference an era from which the famous line comes “Give me liberty or give me death.” Young Americans are taking note, but if conservatives play their hand wrong they may lose not only another election, but a generation. They’ll do it by making the fatal assumption that “average Americans” are behind their cause.
America is still a center-right country. It was center-right “moderates” that voted Obama into office to give him a shot, largely because of a lack of leadership among Republicans. While Sarah Palin did a great job shoring up the base, it wasn’t the base that the party really needed. She may have gotten them out to vote – protecting McCain from a humiliating defeat – but the majority of independent voters are looking for a team player. Obama, despite his agenda, campaigned well as a team player. His tone and posture casts a sense of reason, moderation and sincerity. However, people are beginning to learn the difference between candidate Obama and president Obama, and they’re not impressed. Rasmussen now reports that his approval ratings have dropped under 50%, and his index rating is -8, meaning that his strongest critics are more numerous than his strongest supporters.
Notice that the drop in “strong approval” has only been around 10 points – somewhat expected with a new president. But his “strong disapproval” rating has jumped around 25 points. This data shows us that among people who had not developed a strong enough opinion to be charted in January, the vast majority have now sided with his opposition. Other polls show that the most dramatic shift has been among independents and young voters.
While the recent conservative uproar has helped re-calibrate our priorities and set the case against the Democrat’s agenda, it also risks casting us as paranoid anarchists. Glenn Beck’s semi-accurate emotional rants, Palin’s “death panel” comment and protesters holding signs of Obama with devil horns and others demanding that we “re-elect no one” doesn’t further the practical dialogue that conservatives need to demonstrate. Our principles are sound and our arguments, when presented in an articulate and calm manner, can deconstruct any liberal talking point. There is no reason for the intellectual arena to be dominated by the liberal point of view.
If Republicans can seek out and recruit strong conservative communicators, and nominate a presidential candidate with a proven record, a keen understanding of law and economics and a temperate tone they would nearly guarantee a win in 2012.
Two candidates come to mind, whom I believe to have a good shot. The first is Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. The second is former Mass. Governor Mitt Romney. They both have impressive resumes, including ivy-league education and numerous personal successes in business and government. However, Jindal will have to improve his public speaking skills, and Romney has a couple of hurdles of his own. First, he will have to explain the apparently failed Massachusetts universal health care plan. If he does it right it may actually help him, as he can claim the experiential value of having been part of the process. Second, people will have to get beyond his Mormon faith. Some Christians are hesitant to appoint anyone to such an office that does not share their beliefs, even though several of our founding heroes (most notably Franklin and Jefferson) were not Christian. Nevertheless, if he chooses someone with a strong Christian background as a Vice President – like Huckabee or Palin, perhaps – he may be able to navigate around the problem.
There’s one additional thing that we need to be careful of as the impassioned speech from talks shows and protesters fills radio and TV airwaves. Let’s go back to 1992:
George Bush, Sr. was a one-termer. While some people point to his broken “no new taxes” pledge, which I believe to be a mute point, the consensus is that Bush would’ve carried the election had it not been for Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who represented many fiscal conservatives. He is considered the only third party candidate to ever amass enough support to challenge the majority parties. And that he did. In fact, I would say he beat one of them – Republicans.
If the zealots aren’t careful, they’ll end up handing Democrats another election purely on the basis of divided loyalty. Herein lies the unfortunate consequence of majority rule – if you only vote for people who have everything you want, you’ll never have anything you want. A vote for the mediocre candidate is an equally valid vote against a horrible one. If Obama runs in 2012, which I’m sure he will, the Tea Partygoers and their lead public personalities will have to get behind the opposing Republican candidate, even if he/she is more moderate than they’d like.
But I don’t think we particularly need a moderate candidate – at least not in the sense of someone who is watered down and lacking solid conviction. As the saying goes: people who stay in the middle of the road get run over. Republicans simply need a leader whose style of communicating and debating is diplomatic and reasonable. You can be principled without being offensive. You can have opinions without making character attacks on people who disagree. As Ronald Reagan showed us in 1984, you can be tactful and sincere, and win all but one state.
The conservative voice must be one that seeks unity and progress through the proven traditions and strategies that have made the United States a global leader. We must show how today’s challenges can be met through the framework of free markets, free states and free people. But we cannot altogether cast away the functional safeguards provided by practical and sensible regulation. We should champion legislation that reinforces the commitment to the value of human life, liberty and private ownership; the freedom of speech, press and religion; and the affirmation that our shared prosperity stems from a healthy but delicate balance of liberty and order.