In 2008, the alleged market failures that produced the Great Recession and widespread financial desperation played a crucial role in ushering Obama into the White House. [mc_name name=’Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’M000303′ ]’s admission of general economic ignorance symbolized his inadequacy for the task at hand, especially when paired against his opponent’s eagerness to intervene in markets to restore stability and common welfare. Mitt Romney faired only slightly better in 2012, eroding perceptions of his managerial competence with a bizarre gaffe in which he claimed that half the nation prefers welfare to free markets and repeated, hypocritical attempts to oppose Obamacare while justifying universal health care in Massachusetts.
What should Republicans do differently in 2016? Many things come to mind, but nominating a candidate with a virtually unassailable record of implementing free market solutions – and an unusual aptitude for articulating free market principles – would be a good place to start.
The most damaging conservative affliction is the notion that free market ideas are inherently unpopular, and that Republicans must somehow ease voters into accepting fewer taxes and regulations in the same way that Democrats fuse together piecemeal efforts to establish an all-encompassing welfare state. This is strategic rubbish, and it is based on the false assumption that real principles cannot outsell redistributionist fantasy. In the near term, Republicans can capitalize on the sluggish growth that crept up a full year after Obama’s stimulus efforts ended, the failure of wages to keep up with employment, and the fact that part time jobs account for too large a proportion of recent job gains. But these efforts will fail if they do not properly integrate principled arguments, which will appeal to a statistically significant number of voters – especially Millennials – who once embraced Obama’s vague promises of redistribution and have experienced a gradual change of heart.
According to the Roper Center, 66% of 18-29 year olds voted for Obama in 2008, while in 2012 this number dropped to 60%, despite a 1% increase in the size of this age group. In 2016, 68% of Millennials will fall into the 25-34 cohort, implying a rising proportion of higher-earning Millennials with an incentive to reject higher taxes favored by Democrats. The smallest cohort next year will be the historically most liberal group, which consists of those in their late teens and early 20s. It is also worth noting that in 2012, 75% of all voters identified as “conservative” or “moderate,” with only 25% identifying as liberal, and around 35% claiming the conservative label. The Democrats’ widely anticipated leftward shift in 2016, as evinced by calls for [mc_name name=’Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’W000817′ ] to enter the race, is a risky calculation in light of these recent developments in voter demographics.
In order to appeal to those whose votes will be up for grabs – i.e., independent voters and undecided Millennials – Republican candidates must frame their economic arguments consistently and forcefully. They will need to strike not only at the Democrats’ record of waste and inefficiency during the Obama years, but more fundamentally at their longstanding failure to grasp the moral basis and systemic elegance of the free market system that the current Administration so egregiously disregards.
Specifically, I would advise Republicans to remind these voters that freedom is a moral value in economic life. I would also urge them to acknowledge and obliterate the left-wing fiction that conservatives think of markets as a moralistic mechanism for distributing rewards to hard workers and failure to the lazy. Demonstrate that free markets are best understood as the only means of empowering individuals, whose daily financial decisions deserve to be treated as rights rather than replaced with the whims of central planners. Point out that the Left’s war on “inequality” presupposes a false equivalence between fault and responsibility, and that respecting the right to the fruits of one’s labor does not imply that the unfortunate don’t deserve to be helped, but rather that such help is necessarily finite. Expose the failure to grasp systemic causation that underlies every redistributionist scheme from the War on Poverty to green energy subsidies to Obamacare, all of which rest on a jejune conception of government as an inherently noble and efficient reallocator of wealth produced by individuals. Call out the Left for anchoring all of their grand ambitions on the eventual levying of higher taxes, which are irreducibly punitive and bad for freedom as well as the economy.
But most importantly, don’t let the Left get away with claiming its economic agenda represents the fulfillment of American principles. Obama exclaimed in 2008, while overseas, that “This is the moment when we must build on the wealth that open markets have created, and share it more equitably.” The idea that free markets reach a point, or a “moment,” at which time it becomes possible to redistribute wealth without damaging the very markets that created it – or the freedom they depend on – is a Marxist illusion. The Founders had very little to say on the subject of redistribution, and for good reason. It is not hard to demonstrate why watered-down socialism is incompatible with “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But in 2016, the future of our country may depend on someone who can articulate this message with exceptional concision and clarity.