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.
Conservative public policy reforms in the 1990s significantly reduced bad behaviors. Tough policing, pioneered by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and widely copied, vastly reduced violent crime. Work-oriented welfare reform pioneered by Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and widely copied, vastly reduced welfare dependency. Economic and job growth in the 1990s and 2000s surely owes much to these policy successes.
But more is plainly needed. One possible area is education, where 1990s reforms and the Bush education law have encountered strong institutional resistance from teachers' unions and education schools. Manzi, citing models in Sweden and the Netherlands, calls for "the creation of a real marketplace among ever more deregulated publicly financed schools -- a market in which funding follows students, and far broader discretion is permitted to those who actually teach and manage in our schools."
Democrats are prevented by their teacher union paymasters from pursuing such goals seriously -- witness their battle to kill a small school voucher program in the District of Columbia. Republicans could do much better, starting at the state level and daring the Obama administration to stop them in Washington.
Another possibility is pro-family tax reform. The post-World War II tax regime, with its big dependent deductions, produced the equivalent of a generous children's allowance for married parents. Republicans should try to tilt tax policy in the same direction again.
Democrats promise to bring up an immigration bill this year. Republicans can take up Manzi's call to tilt immigration policy toward high-skill immigrants, away from job-seekers and toward job-creators.
Less likely to be of help are the issues that have raged in the culture war politics that prevailed until the current recession kicked in. Further abortion restrictions may be desirable, but the number of abortions has been falling for almost two decades. And I see no evidence that prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying will induce opposite-sex couples who have children to get married and stay married.
The point is to advance public policies on education, taxes, immigration and other issues that can encourage, reward and honor constructive personal behavior. That's a daunting challenge for Republicans -- and for America.