Karl Rove had some good advice for Republicans in his year-end Wall Street Journal column. "It won't be enough to surf voter dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama and Democrats," he wrote. "Voters will want to know what Republican candidates would do."
It's become clear over the year just past that economic distress has not increased Americans' desire for big government spending programs. Voters are recoiling against the $787 billion stimulus package, the narrowly passed Democratic health care bills and the cap-and-trade bill that's stalled in the Senate. They don't like the smell of crony capitalism, bailout favoritism and earmark corruption.
Republicans can make political hay -- and good policy sense -- by promising to repeal such measures if they get the votes to do so. But like any political party seeking a mandate, they need to look farther ahead.
And not just to past successes. Tax cuts played a major role in sparking economic growth in the past three decades. But that growth has produced fewer and fewer jobs. Private-sector employment rose 2.4 million in 1982-90, 2.1 million in 1991-2001 and only 1 million in 2001-07. America had fewer private-sector jobs on Dec. 31, 2009, than on Dec. 31, 1999.
Economists are not entirely sure why. Increasing manufacturing productivity and foreign competition have played a role. But another factor may be at work -- what tech entrepreneur Jim Manzi identifies in an article in National Affairs as "the growing disparity in behavioral norms and social conditions between the upper and lower income strata in American society."
America, his argument goes, is failing to develop the human capital it needs, at least in what we might call the underhalf of our society.
Manzi notes that the behavioral revolution of the 1960s and 1970s produced hugely higher divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth rates. Then, in the past two decades, the rates of divorce and unmarried parenthood have fallen back to 1950s levels among college graduates. But they have remained high, or even increased, among non-college graduates, which we may take as a reasonable proxy for the underhalf.
It's clear that there's a high correlation between lifestyle patterns and economic performance. Almost no one who graduates from high school, gets married and stays married, and gets a job falls into poverty. Many who do not do these things do.