Henry Olsen is a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute and director of its National Research Initiative.
The problem with Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay taxes isn’t just that they are highly misleading and damaging politically. They also severely misstate and undermine conservative principles at a time when many Americans desperately want an alternative to Obamaism.
Conservatism at its heart believes in the individual. We believe that every person has the capacity to devise a life of her or his own choosing, and that untoward government activity both channels and throttles a person’s ability to flourish. That is true whether someone is rich, poor or average; whether a person wants to climb the highest mountains or dwell in the deepest valleys.
When I came of political age in the late 1970s, conservatism was led by two giants, Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. Each came from humble backgrounds; each had known real adversity and expressed genuine empathy for the common man. Both had created uncommon lives for themselves. But neither thought that the people from the neighborhoods they left were anything but decent and honorable Americans, no matter how much they paid in taxes.
In their hands, conservatism ceased to be a theoretical oddity or academic exercise. It became the vital life force of American politics, the prism through which Americans could see their futures happily unfolding.
Central to this achievement was an obvious respect for the innate dignity of the average American. Kemp’s manifest passion for improving the lot of the poor endeared him to many who disagreed with his prescriptions. Reagan’s regard was less impassioned in his manner but just as profound.
Reagan addressed what he called “the forgotten American — that simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as free lunch.’ ” In Reagan’s America, it was okay if you wanted to lead a quiet life, so long as you did not prevent others from pursuing their dreams.
And in Reagan’s view, ordinary people were capable of greatness. There was Lenny Skutnik, who plunged from obscurity into the icy waters of the Potomac to save passengers from a downed flight. There were ordinary GI Joes whose courage on the beaches of Normandy (or, today, in the valleys of Afghanistan) protect civilization.
It wasn’t so long ago that mainstream conservatism represented these values. We indexed income brackets and personal exemptions to inflation in the early 1980s to protect middle- and low-income families. Conservatives created the child tax credit in 1997 and expanded it in 2001 to reduce the tax burden for parents. In the past decade, we championed a flat tax that contained a generous exemption for a family of four, precisely so those least able to pay would not be forced to.
I believe the mainstream conservative still believes in these things. But when Romney divides the world into makers and takers and presumes that our ability to pay federal income tax is a measure of which group we belong to, he sends a different message. He implicitly tells average Americans that their quiet work doesn’t “make” America unless they are entrepreneurs who make enough money. Worse, he tells them that their lives aren’t even dignified, that they are “takers” who are unable to exercise personal responsibility over their lives.
I don’t know if my dad, who never graduated from college and who worked on his feet for 40 years, ever had a year in which he didn’t pay federal income taxes. Perhaps in 1970, when he was laid off during a recession and had a mortgage, two children and a third on the way. But I know he and millions like him “made” America because they made the things we buy and, more important, they made people like me.
I will vote for Romney despite his flaws. The alternative is unacceptable: In this matter, I really have no choice. But in broader political action I do have a choice, and I choose to rededicate myself to building that shining city on a hill that Reagan evoked when he brought conservatism out of the wilderness.
That city is one we all can help build and in which we all can live. It’s a city with citizens, not clients; a place where the government doesn’t keep its hands off or provide handouts but, instead, offers everyone a hand up. It’s one that exists not to enrich the few but to ennoble the many.
Jeb Bush’s convention speech called on Republicans to talk this way, to speak of liberty and opportunity for all Americans. Mitch Daniels and countless Republican governors act this way when they extend the promise of school choice and affordable health insurance to constituents. Countless conservative intellectuals and leaders are doing their part in this project.
After Nov. 6, whether Romney wins or loses, the conservative movement will still face a time for choosing. Do we still value the Lenny Skutniks and Joe the Plumbers? Or are we a movement that not so subtly tells the average Jane and Joe that their sacrifices don’t count, that the place of honor is set only for the highest and most successful among us?
I know from my 30-plus years in the conservative movement that most of us still share that Reaganesque vision. We need to have the courage of our convictions and renew our movement. If not us, who? If not now, when?