By Paolo von Schirach
November 15, 2012
WASHINGTON – The Romney campaign post-mortem analysis on the unhappy ending of their campaign is that they could not win against Obama, a Democratic candidate offering a lot of free “stuff” –benefits, subsidies, cash handouts– to its large and growing constituencies of self-described “needy people”. People want free stuff, lament the Republicans, and they more likely to vote for a candidate promising it, than for a candidate pointing out that much of it is unaffordable, and deep down bad for you because you become dependent, this way losing your ability to take care of yourself with your own resources.
Insufficient Republican message
There is some truth to this, but only some. Indeed, it is hard to be the party that advocates self-reliance and austerity –meaning spending cuts, thrift and fiscal responsibility in order to get out of the hole of a horrible national debt– and be also popular.
That said, the historic challenge for the Republicans is to elaborate a credible platform that is not just about lower taxes and spending cuts as the golden road to broad based prosperity. This message is terribly insufficient because it is based on the false premise that most Americans are eager would-be self-starters, budding entrepreneurs who just want to be unshackled and free to start their own business. Well, some are; and most of them voted for Romney. But the majority is made out of those who are not that self-confident, plus all the others, (intellectuals, NGOs, academics, media people, wealthy and socially minded celebrities), who sympathize with them.
Rethinking is necessary
This state of affairs requires deep rethinking, unless the Republicans want to be a perpetual minority party. If we go back to the shop worn but still valid metaphor of “the fish”, we see where the Republican deep deficiency is. The old saying is that “ If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he’ll feed himself and his family for life”.
New message: How to create opportunity
The Democrats have become the leading experts at doling out fish, even though all this well intended charity over time plunged the country into a huge debt hole that will eventually undermine the entire system.
But the Republicans assume that, if you just do away with all the free fish programs, all recipients will start fishing on their own, because they already know how to fish. Well, guess what, some know how to fish on their own, or are at least willing to give it a try. But millions of Americans do not; and they are afraid of the Republicans who want to take away their free fish allowance.
And here is the issue. It is indeed true that open ended welfare creates dependence. But cutting welfare while telling people to fend for themselves is a rather cruel remedy. Millions just do not know how.
If the Republicans want to become appealing to those who receive the aid that is indeed ultimately bad for them on top of being unaffordable, they have to illustrate how they will teach people how to become expert fishermen. In other words, telling people “You are now free to start your own business because we have cut taxes and eliminated all the red tape” is not enough for people who do not know how to start their own business because thy lack the background, the education and the training.
Land of Opportunity?
The challenge for the Republicans is to credibly refashion the old and still valid notion of America as “Land of Opportunity” by explaining in a convincing manner how they intend to broaden real opportunity. For instance, a key element to build an Opportunity Society from the ground up is to give real, quality public education to all Americans. Right now this is not the case. The children of the poor (and the poor are often minorities) start badly in life because they do not have access to a good education. In fact they get almost no education worth the name.
Public education reform should become a top priority
The Republicans should make public education reform a top priority, simply because uneducated people are condemned to stay at the bottom of society, as they lack the tools to fully participate in the economy. No education, no opportunity. In a perverse way, the same people who are betrayed by a public education system that gives them nothing become the obvious constituency for the welfare programs doled out by the Democrats.
Let’s get this straight: economic liberalization, deregulation and lower taxes are great for those who are already in the game; but they are essentially irrelevant for the millions who do not believe they have a prayer of getting in. These disadvantaged millions, by default if nothing else, will opt for the free fish programs, and they will vote for the candidates offering them.
Jeb Bush gets it
It may not be entirely accidental that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is focusing so much on public education reform. His effort is also an attempt to rebrand the Republican Party as a political force promoting positive social change . In other words, “he gets it”; and we can only wish him an his associates success.