The name of the program now escapes me. Several months ago, while flipping channels with the remote, I stopped on an MTV show about a working mom whose whole life was upended when her partner announced that he was splitting. It caught my attention because this mother lived in a nice apartment that looked like one in my suburban New Jersey town, and she was applying for food stamps.
This wasn't your caricature "taker"—the woman had a real job. With her partner leaving, however, she could no longer afford the rent, and she would have trouble providing for her two young boys alone. As she walked up to an office to sign up for food stamps, she said something like, "I can't believe I am applying for public assistance."
Her situation provoked two questions. First, how could her boyfriend just abandon his sons without having to pay child support? Second, what is the conservative response to a woman who finds herself in this situation?
The show comes back to me in wake of the thumping Mitt Romney took in the presidential election among the demographic this mom represents: unmarried women. During the 2012 campaign, we conservatives had great sport at the expense of the Obama administration's "Life of Julia"—a cartoon explaining the cradle-to-grave government programs that provided for Julia's happy and successful life.
The president, alas, had the last laugh. For the voting blocs that went so disproportionately for the president's re-election—notably, Latinos and single women—the Julia view of government clearly resonates. To put it another way, maybe Americans who have reason to feel insecure about their futures don't find a government that promises to be there for them when they need it all that menacing.
The dominant media conclusion from this is that the Republican Party is cooked unless it surrenders its principles. I'm not so sure. To the contrary, it strikes me that now is a pretty good time to get back to principles—and to do more to show people who gave President Obama his victory why their dreams and families would be better served by a philosophy of free markets and limited government.
Let's concede that those who are pushing to expand government have one huge advantage. Their advantage is that their solutions are immediate, direct and easy to explain.
Take that MTV mom. As it turned out, the reason her partner could abandon those two young boys is because they weren't his. He'd been supporting another man's children, and apparently decided he'd had enough. The conservative might feel vindicated here: Had the mom been married to and living with her children's father, chances are she and her boys would not find themselves so vulnerable.
Being correct, however, isn't the same thing as being persuasive. The conservative is rightly concerned with incentives and the long-term effects of any government program for relief, which are vital concerns for workable policy. The liberal is far less abstract: Here are some food stamps so your children don't go hungry tonight.
Never mind the long-term costs and consequences of these solutions. Yes, the education loans that supposedly make college "affordable" actually drive its costs up faster than normal inflation. Yes, housing subsidies have saddled people with homes they cannot afford. And, yes, minimum-wage laws price the people who can least afford it out of the job market. The dilemma for those of us who oppose big-government solutions is that the true costs of these "solutions" are seldom clear until it's too late.
So what's a Republican to do?
Surely not to embrace higher taxes for the rich. Leave aside the impact of higher taxes on investment. The political problem is that raising these taxes does nothing to challenge the larger liberal narrative about government. Conservatives' top priority should be promoting an alternative—that in a highly competitive, global economy, the only real economic security for ordinary Americans is the security of opportunity.
Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, describes the conservative task this way: "The left's approach to social policy is to shield people from the American economy, while conservatives' approach must be to enable them to enjoy its benefits—to enable people to move up rather than to make them more secure in poverty. Conservatives know that this is where our principles point, but we need to make sure that the striving immigrant worker or the struggling single mom knows that too."
It can be done. Three decades ago, Milton and Rose Friedman illustrated the benefits of capitalism to millions of ordinary citizens through their television series and book, "Free to Choose." We need a similar popular effort today, to bring home the benefits of the free market to Americans who think it works only for the kind of folks who work at Bain Capital—or write columns for The Wall Street Journal.
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A version of this article appeared November 27, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How Obama's 'Life of Julia' Prevailed.