Five weeks before Election Day, I had lunch with the head of state of one of America’s closest European allies. When I asked him how our politics looked to him from a distance of some 3,500 miles, he replied, more in sorrow than in anger, “America is missing greatness.”
Americans dubious of what they style “foreign entanglements,” who would otherwise shrug off such an observation, might think twice about it in light of a second Obama administration. For my luncheon host was not simply referring to a lack of American leadership abroad; he was, in a single, poignant phrase, speaking of a national will to diminishment that seemed to him evident in both the astonishing possibility that a failed president would be reelected and the equally surprising inability of that president’s opponents to make a compelling case for change.
And here, too, is something for Republican strategists to ponder while sifting through the wreckage. Mitt Romney made himself a better candidate throughout 2012, and for one brief, electric moment at the first debate, he seemed like a leader with vision, passion, and wit. But a recovery of American greatness — cultural, political, economic, diplomatic, and military greatness — was not the driving theme of the Romney campaign. Not knowing Mitt Romney personally, I can’t say whether this obviously decent and successful man simply lacked the understanding necessary to make the case for true American renewal, as distinct from the faux hope-and-change mantra that had seduced so many in 2008. But whatever Romney’s personal inclinations, many Republican campaign managers and consultants always seemed afraid of scaring the horses. Obama would be beaten, they insisted, on grounds of competence, not by a campaign that called the country to recognize that it need not settle for mediocrity, a campaign that summoned America to new heights of achievement.
The themes for such a campaign were not difficult to imagine; they could have been built around a recasting of FDR’s four freedoms. Freedom of religion: No government bureaucrat in Washington is going to tell your religious community how to conduct its affairs. Freedom from fear: A Romney administration will not tolerate the burning of American embassies and the torture and murder of our diplomats by the thugs of al-Qaeda and their jihadist allies. Freedom for excellence and accomplishment: Unshackling American ingenuity from the restraints of government interference will unleash new wealth-creating and wealth-distributing energies, even as that liberation empowers the poor to lead lives of self-responsibility through honest and dignified work. And freedom from unpayable debt: Your children and grandchildren must not be buried beneath a sludge pile of extravagance sluicing out of a national capital (and an administration) addicted to throwing oceans of money at problems.
Would it have worked? Who knows? But the issues would have been sharpened; the fake issues (“war on women,” “tax breaks for the rich,” etc.) might have been marginalized; and a lot more energy — real political energy, not just energies bent on denying Obama a second term — might have been unleashed.
Whatever the clumsiness of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remark, the hard fact of the matter is that a critical mass of Americans are now so dependent on government (either directly or through public-sector unions) that any appeal to a larger national vision, much less a vision of personal responsibility, is impossible.
There is, in hard truth, something here. That half the country was prepared to reelect a manifestly failed president whose personal incapacities, like the incapacities of the bloated governmental bureaucracies over which he presided, were on full display in the weeks before the election, and in venues ranging from North Africa to Staten Island, is a very disturbing “indicator,” as the pollsters like to say. That a goodly proportion of that half of America seemed susceptible to the Obama campaign’s class warfare is also disturbing. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the exit-poll data showing that a healthy majority of the electorate believed Obama more capable than Romney of handling foreign crises: and this, after the lethal fiasco of Benghazi, itself the embodiment of an ideologically driven pusillanimity in foreign policy that has been on display since the president’s apologize-for-America tour at the beginning of his first term. “Missing greatness,” it turns out, is not just a function of who’s in charge. It’s a result of democratic citizens’ not paying attention. Or worse, it’s the result of citizens’ suffering such severe ideological glaucoma that they cannot see what is in front of them.
What has obviously changed, in other words, is American political culture: and it is hard to make a case that that change has been for the better.