Romney's Vision Thing

When George H.W. Bush ran for re-election, one of the problems he faced was a perceived inability to place his policy objectives into a larger, compelling framework that would capture voters’ imaginations. “The vision thing,” as he called it, would dog his campaign. While it was Ross Perot’s candidacy that cost Bush the election (take note, Donald Trump), since that time politicians have been careful to show voters that they have the vision thing down.

Unfortunately, Mitt Romney seems to have a chosen a vision that seems guaranteed to underwhelm. If you turn to his campaign’s website you’ll find the stirring lines in a banner at the top: “WE HAVE A MORAL RESPONSIBILITY NOT TO SPEND MORE THAN WE TAKE IN.” So we have to live within our means. Got it. And then what? Imagine a company whose ads read: “We have a legal obligation to balance our books.” Does that make you want to patronize that company? Buy its products? Tell you anything at all about its products? To be fair, the Romney site also carries the inspirational-sounding “Believe inAmerica,” but that rather generic slogan hardly captures the imagination. And that’s the problem with the Romney campaign.

The thing is, I support Mitt Romney. I support him because of the incontrovertible fact that Romney is the only one of the remaining candidates with a realistic chance to defeat Obama. But I’m not excited about his candidacy. And in tonight’s debate he gave me yet another reason not to be excited about his campaign. When asked about the enticing prospect of constructing a base on the Moon, Romney frowned and said anyone who came to him with that idea would be fired. He was rather like the stern Mr. Bumble denying little Oliver Twist a second helping of gruel. No moon base for you, young man!

American space exploration, particularly the moon landing, was a visible expression of the greatness of our system and the breadth of our vision as a nation. Our space program promised an unlimited future for humanity, and the world held its breath as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on another world. No other nation has ever repeated what we—not just our astronauts and ground controllers—but we Americans did on July 20, 1969.

Since that time, our manned space efforts have dwindled, not in number, but in significance. The space shuttle allowed more frequent visits to space, but the emphasis was on launching orbital payloads, not human exploration. Sure, in the years since the final Apollo mission we’ve had some glimpses of a larger vision–the Viking landing on Mars, the images from Hubble, the Pathfinder mission—but none of these involved humans traveling to space. Now Obama has gutted our space capability. We have lost the ability to launch humans into even near-Earth orbit, relying instead on the Russians. And the Chinese had announced that they, notAmerica, will establish a base on the moon.

As a child, I had a book called ‘You Will Go to the Moon.” I read it over and over again, believing that eventually I would one day go to the Moon, not as an astronaut, but as a tourist or on business. I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and found its depiction of a functional moon base by the end of the century to be realistic. But by 1999, as a few friends discussed the approaching millennium, we knew that the grand visions of our youth would not be realized anytime soon. One of us looked around and complained, “Where’s the future?”

That’s a question Mitt Romney needs to answer. But when Newt Gingrich raised the tantalizing vision of a return to the Moon, Romney’s only answer was “We can’t afford that.” The inanity of that response is astounding. Space exploration has always been a tiny fraction of the federal budget, and it has always paid great dividends, not only in knowledge, but in a multitude of real-world applications, from computers to cell phones to advances in medicine. And it has paid in widening the scope of our imagination. Newt has this one right: we need a romantic vision of who we are and what we can do. Great nations have this vision. Little ones don’t. Think about John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon within a decade. And think of how we answered it.

Perhaps the green eyeshade crowd feels differently. But from where I sit, Mitt Romney missed a chance to answer Newt Gingrich’s challenge. To win, he needs to seize our imagination, not shut it down. If he is the nominee, he must face the man selling “hope and change” by giving us something better to hope for.