This week in Manchester, New Hampshire, seven Republican contenders faced off in the first GOP primary debate of the season, attempting to make their case to the American people for why they are better suited than President Obama to lead the country in these challenging times. In an evening relatively free from the kind of intra-party contention often seen in these debates, the seven candidates focused on Obama like a laser, casting a dramatically different vision from the Commander in Chief as to how American government and society should order themselves going forward.
Across the board, the Republican candidates expressed a sharp disagreement with Mr. Obama regarding the role that government should play in the lives of its citizens. The current occupant of the White House, as has become evident, firmly believes that a large, powerful, and active government offers the best hope of eradicating America's economic woes. No matter how bad things get, or how woefully ineffective big-government approaches prove to be, the current administration is unwilling to permit the free market – and by extension, the American entrepreneur, worker, and consumer – to address the economic issues facing the nation.
Of all the candidates, Congressman Ron Paul deserves credit for having the most fully-developed view of the role that government should play vis a vis the economy. In a word, according to Paul, it should be very little. An avowed Libertarian, Paul stressed the importance and wisdom of letting the market determine economic winners and losers instead of leaving it up to politicians and their special interest constituencies.
Reason and experience prevent me from embracing the unadulterated laissez faire idealism that animates Mr. Paul and his most ardent followers (recall Madison's observation that "if men were angels, government wouldn't be necessary" – they aren't and it is); nevertheless, it is refreshing to hear a Republican espouse a coherent and unapologetic stance on issues of economic liberty. The economic meltdown and subsequent recession were caused by greed, corruption, and recklessness on Wall Street and on Main Street. Bankers and lenders and traders who attempted to game the system for inordinate gain should have been allowed to crash and burn, and immature, indulgent citizens who dug themselves into a financial quagmire trying to "have it all" should have been left to reap the consequences of their unwise actions.
Uncle Sam couldn't leave well enough alone, however. The federal government's attempt to insulate the American people from the consequences of their actions prevented the law of natural consequences from working its healing power. Important lessons that should have been learned were circumvented, and the opportunity for the economy to rebuild itself upon an authentic, stable foundation was lost.
But, of, course, it would require a substantial measure of humility for elected officials to stand by and let nature take its course when the going gets tough. That particular virtue, however, is in short supply in Washington. And besides, who wants to miss the opportunity to play the hero? This temptation is something that plagues both sides of the aisle. Remember that it was President Bush who "abandoned the free market in order to save it."
At this point, it's difficult to tell who among the Republican candidates possesses the rare combination of wisdom, humility, and leadership necessary to break the poisonous cycle of big-government intervention and lead us out of this mess. Mitt Romney and Herman Cain have undeniable leadership and economic appeal, but the former has troubling gubernatorial baggage and the latter isn't widely known. Can Michelle Bachmann's ideological purity offset any concerns about her lack of executive experience, or will she be dismissed in the long run as too "Tea Party" for the GOP ticket? Does Pawlenty have the charisma necessary to convince voters he's the one to beat Obama? Can Newt Gingrich recover from his early stumbles?
There's a long road yet ahead for the Republican Party in the race for 2012, but after months of speculation it's clear that finally, the race has begun. Only time will tell which candidate has what it takes to go the distance.