If you missed the big Conservative Political Action Committee powwow over the weekend in Washington, you missed some pretty dumb speeches. In denouncing President Obama’s health-care reform effort, Mitt Romney declared that “Americans will not endure government-run health care, a new and expensive entitlement, an inexplicable and surely vanishing cut in Medicare, and an even greater burden of taxes.” Then he went on to praise President Bush.
That’s a lot of incoherence to pack into one sentence. First, Americans already do endure government-run health care: from Medicare to Medicaid to the veterans’ health system. They endure Medicare so happily, in fact, that mere seconds after denouncing Obama for supporting government-run health care, Romney attacked him for cutting government-run health care. As for “new and expensive entitlements,” Romney’s hero, George W. Bush, created a $550 billion one in 2003—though to be fair, he didn’t pay for it with new taxes. He added it to the national debt.
Rubio and his fellow conservatives declare that as long as Americans really, really believe that we’re No. 1, the 21st century will be ours.
Not to be outdone, Romney’s potential competitor for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, Tim Pawlenty, mocked Obama for speaking from a teleprompter and then contrasted him—I kid you not—with the famously teleprompter-averse Ronald Reagan. Pawlenty also declared that America’s first “basic constitutional principle” is “God’s in charge.” And there I was, all this time, thinking that in a democracy the “basic constitutional principle” is that the demos—the people—are in charge. I had naively assumed that “God’s in charge” is the “basic constitutional principle” of well, theocracy. For Pawlenty, evidently, Thomas Jefferson and the Ayatollah Khomeini saw government pretty much the same way.
• Christopher Buckley: Conservatives, Fired Up• John Avlon: Glenn Beck Declares War• Watch CPAC’s Most Outrageous MomentsBut the most disturbing lines came from Florida senatorial hopeful and CPAC heartthrob Marco Rubio. During his speech, Rubio called America “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from…the only economy in the world where poor people with a better idea and a strong work ethic can compete and succeed…the only place in the world where you can open up a business in the spare bedroom of your home…the only country in the world where today’s employee is tomorrow’s employer” and the “one place in the world where the individual was more important than the state.”
And you wonder why Republicans have trouble getting along with America’s allies. Once upon a time, leaders of both parties took pride in America’s membership in a community of democracies whose members shared the same basic commitment to due process and individual liberty. That was the whole point of the phrase “free world.” For Rubio, however, there’s only one free nation in the world; the rest of the planet has succumbed to the kind of totalitarianism that Barack Obama hopes to bring to our shores.
If you think about it, it’s bizarre. Capitalism, and to a lesser extent democracy, now dominate the world to an extent that was almost unimaginable a few decades ago. As a result, the United States is experiencing fierce competition from a host of countries—from Western Europe to China to India to Brazil—that use government regulation and investment to stabilize and humanize the free market. The United States is handicapped in this competition by an economic collapse prompted by insufficient regulation of our financial markets, by our staggeringly inefficient health-care system, and by our increasingly second-rate public infrastructure. And here comes Marco Rubio, the charismatic face of the newly multicultural GOP, to say that America need not worry about these competitors because, after all, we’re the only free nation on earth. We’re the only place where people can start businesses in their bedrooms and overcome the circumstances of their birth.
It’s feel-good nonsense. A 2007 study by Daniel Aaronson of the Federal Reserve and Bhashkar Mazumder of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago suggests that “intergenerational economic mobility”—a person’s chances of rising above (or falling below) the station of his parents—“has declined sharply since 1980.” A 2006 study by American University’s Tom Hartz notes that the U.S. now boasts less class mobility than Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and yes, France.
It would seem, therefore, like a good moment to think about what the United States might learn from those nations that are making our national dream their national reality. Perhaps it’s easier to rise from rags to riches if government helps provide some decent preschool and makes it easier to start a business in your spare room if you don’t have to go without health care in the process.
But that would require a curious, generous, outward-looking spirit, an understanding that national chauvinism imperils—rather than fosters—national success. Instead, Rubio and his fellow conservatives declare that as long as Americans really, really believe that we’re No. 1, and vanquish all those hand-wringing, apology-prone, self-doubters in the Democrat Party, the 21st century will be ours. For the folks at CPAC, Marco Rubio is the face of the Republican future. When I look at him, I see something different: the face of American decline.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June.