Originally published in Official Artur Davis
This article also appeared in Politico on September 8, 2012.
It’s a conceit of journalists who must take a stand by a deadline that one speech in a campaign could ever be decisive, even one as prodigiously brilliant as Bill Clinton’s opus in Charlotte. Add to that the fact that half the speech—maybe its most blistering half regarding Republicans—happened after 11 EST, as well as the variable that the man delivering it is not on the ballot and governed for his six best years in a manner strategically and philosophically distinct from the man he was defending. (I won’t even revisit my point on this site a few days ago that an admittedly powerful address shredded and disguised facts shamelessly).
Republicans would be wise, however, to recognize that Clinton’s central theme, “‘we’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own’”, happens to be the single most compelling weapon that Democrats will wield this fall, far more effective than spinning Barack Obama’s record on job creation, and much more lethal than point by point engagement on who does what to Medicare. The argument is an all purpose indictment that suggests that a Romney-Ryan administration might not have much of a moral core—and that the default result would be policies that deregulated Wall Street at risk to the rest of us, threw the vulnerable off the safety net, or hoarded prosperity so tightly that it barely trickled down to the middle.
To be sure, the Obama iteration that society is a connecting web of responsibilities is too complex for its own good and comes close to reimagining individual success as not all it’s cracked up to be. The formulation is one Republicans have mastered rebutting, aided by Obama’s ill-advised articulation that “you didn’t build that.”
But Clinton’s brand is something else in several respects: first, it offers that good communities should try to boost the prospects of their own without leaving mobility entirely up to individual effort. Second, it trades on the uncontroversial notion that societies can turn selfish unless checked by some sense of mutual obligation. While the Obama version flies in the face of our own experiences about what makes individuals flourish, the Clinton version avoids diminishing personal accomplishment while evoking our well worn sensibilities about human nature.
The world sketched by Obama makes government the single dominant instrument in civil society, and a steady majority of Americans would recoil at that prospect. The Clinton conception, though, arguably doesn’t so much grow government as it gives government a morality for measuring its deployment of resources.
It may be that no words will sway voters from concluding that Obama’s “incomplete”report card is just not good enough. But if the economy muddles along enough to create reasonable doubt, or even if Mitt Romney wins and has to survive Democratic obstruction, Republicans will need a case that is broader than a defense of economic liberty. The conservative future will have to include aspirations as well as guard-rails, and cannot rely solely on rose-tinted lenses to assess human and corporate conduct.
Arguably,conservatism did not face this challenge in the last decade, when it was Democrats who were the party of cease and desist—as in end the war in Iraq,expire the Bush tax cuts, and don’t touch Social Security. Nor was Clinton’s vision much of an issue in 2010, when expanding government was the only real Democratic mantra. But Clinton just served up a reminder that stripping down government need not mean stripping it of core values. Conservatives need an answer.