As the Iowa caucuses loom, potential contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination are jockeying for position, each eager to establish themselves as the person best-suited to take on Barack Obama. Needless to say, there has been a lot of temperature-taking – a lot of fingers in the wind – as presidential hopefuls attempt to gauge the mood of the electorate. Which issues will play best against the President? What policy position is likely to get people off their couches and to the polls on election day?
The obvious answer? As former President Bill Clinton put it, "It's the economy, stupid!" Indeed, three years into a recession, with a sluggish job market and gas prices expected to rise this summer, it's no surprise that the economy is weighing on the minds of the American people more than any other issue. No doubt this is what led Governor Mitch Daniels recently to suggest that the GOP should downplay contentious social issues in favor of a laser focus on America's dire financial situation:
"If you don't accept that we face a republic-threatening issue in terms of the debt . . . that threatens every one of us whatever our views on these other questions. I would like to think that fixing it and saving our kids future could be a unifying moment for our country and we wouldn't stop our disagreements or our passionate belief in these other questions, we just sort of mute them for a little while, while we try to come together on the thing that menaces us all."
On it's face, Governor Daniel's points make a lot of sense. Given the extreme nature of America's financial plight, it's understandable why politicians don't want to sow division among the electorate by introducing controversial social issues into the 2012 presidential debates. There's a problem with this line of thinking, however. The economy doesn't operate in a vacuum, and the American people are more than the sum of their 401ks. A society that pursues economic prosperity while ignoring the health of its foundational cultural and social institutions will not prosper for long. The "invisible hand" of the free market, as we've seen recently, can be incredibly destructive when the men and women guiding it are without honor or virtue.
In other words, it's not just about money. Among the "other questions" dismissed by Governor Daniels are issues that speak to the heart of who we are as human beings, issues fundamental to a just society. The right to life, for example, is that right without which no other right can exist. It's hard to exercise liberty and pursue happiness when the safety and security of your person is uncertain, when the State or a madman on the street or even your own mother can decide that the world would be better off if you did not exist. How free and fair can we expect the economy to be in a society that fails to recognize the unique value of each and every human life? How can we expect financial responsibility and maturity from our citizens when our culture fosters an attitude of complete self-centeredness, indulgence and license in other areas of life? Yet somehow Governor Daniels (and, to be fair, others also) has determined that these questions are not "republic-threatening," and thus not likely to be "winning issues" in 2012.
Truth be told, here's what it comes down to in politics: Underneath the rhetoric and histrionics, most politicians just want the easiest and safest route to reelection. They know that if they rock the boat too much, some passengers will jump ship; therefore, they avoid hot topics in favor of issues everyone can agree on. This might be smart politics, but is it's not the kind of leadership that America needs.
Years of political myopathy have brought America to the brink of financial and moral bankruptcy. Both conditions threaten the republic, and we cannot recover from one without addressing the root causes of the other. Our collective pursuit of "a more perfect union" must be one that takes into account the many dimensions of human society and the human person. This endeavor requires leaders who will put the country first, and who have the courage and vision to see past the current election cycle. Cut corners in pursuit of the easy win, and nothing will ever change.
Ultimately, our leaders are a reflection of ourselves. For too long, we have cast our votes in favor of big talk and empty promises – the same old song and dance. In 2012, we don't need more of the same. We don't need political opportunists who curry favor by telling us only what we want to hear. We need leaders with long term vision, a comprehensive understanding of the challenges we face, and the grit to get ball rolling towards a brighter future for America.