Where is the Republican Optimism?

Republicans are all doom and gloom this year. They need to tell a more intuitively American story.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush makes a speech in Barrington, New Hampshire, August 7
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush makes a speech in Barrington, New Hampshire, August 7 (Michael Vadon)

America’s Republicans are supposed to be the party of opportunity. Yet its presidential candidates spend more time complaining what a bad state the Democrats are supposedly leaving the country in than discussing ways to make it better.

Michael Grunwald has pointed out at Politico that the party’s most recent presidential primary debate was a depressing affair.

America’s potential, said Carly Fiorina, is being “crushed.” America’s military, said Marco Rubio, is being “eviscerated.” Working people, said Mike Huckabee, are “taking a gut punch.” The idea of America, said Bobby Jindal, is “slipping away.”

And it’s not just the presidential candidates. Four out of five self-described social conservatives believe America is in moral decline. Only a quarter of Americans of all parties believe the country is on the right track.

Republicans shouldn’t be starryeyed. For many Americans, life is hard. They work long hours or two jobs to make ends meet. Even many middle-class Americans are struggling to pay their mortgage, health insurance and a college education for their children.

This website has argued that the defining issue of the 2016 election will likely be how to make life a little easier for those tens of millions of Americans who are neither poor nor rich but would be comfortably off in any other Western country.

We have also argued that Republicans need to be the party of the middle class and come up with policy solutions for their problems, whether it is unaffordable higher education, a health-care system that is similarly more expensive than it needs to be or the absence of real wage growth. Issues like abortion and gay rights may galvanize activists on the right; they are not going to decide the upcoming presidential election.

James Poulos has argued at The Daily Beast that in order to appeal to voters in the middle, Republicans need to abandon their “cult of upward mobility” and recognize that the American Dream pertains far more to horizontal rather than vertical mobility.

As a people, we do not want an endless ascendance through bigger houses, better cars and more entitled offspring. We want enough in the way of material things to range freely through space and time, unfettered by the burdens of the past — no matter how uncertain the journey, no matter how unknown or impermanent the destination.

Poulos sees hopes in the “reform conservatism” of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a presidential candidate. But even his tax and spending plans — which challenge right-wing orthodoxy by insisting that government can do good in areas like education — are premised on a probably unrealistic growth forecast of 4 percent. With America’s population aging (if slower than in other developed nations) and productivity already high, around 2 percent growth is more likely to be the “new normal.”

Bush would call that left-wing pessimism. It is actually the consensus among economists from the left and the right and above the performance of other developed economies, including Western Europe’s and Japan’s.

The problem for Bush and his party is that Republicans distinguish themselves from Democrats by arguing that they want to give Americans an equal start in life rather than equalize the outcomes. They don’t mind that people who work hard, take the risk of starting a business or simply have talent make more money than others. Most Americans agree with them.

Democrats argue that fortunes aren’t made by people of ability and talent alone; that too often there is no such thing as equal opportunity; that being born into the right family and having attended the right schools is what preordains success in life.

They may be right. But it’s not a very compelling narrative. The Republican story is more intuitively American. Which is why the doom and gloom coming from the party’s presidential candidates this year is so dispiriting.