At the National Review Institute's "Future of Conservatism" Summit last month, conservative thinkers and Republican rising stars delivered enlightenment and encouragement for Party of Lincoln in the Age of Obama. Yet, while the conservative movement's flagship publication sought to cover the bases with a dazzle of panelists and topics, the event failed to elevate the discussion in GOP circles beyond what their itching ears wanted to hear.
Missing from the 13 panel sessions -- whose topics ranged from the fiscal crisis and immigration policy to state-based solutions and the Constitution -- was any discussion of how to create private-sector jobs. While several speakers mentioned "economic growth," no session focused on the jobs crisis or explored proactive policies that would actually generate millions of high-paying middle-class jobs.
After four years of massive unemployment, this glaring omission may reflect the insularity of the conservative think tanks, all of which presume that the libertarian "Jeffersonian" economic construct that they have saddled on the party for years will deliver "Hamiltonian" results. In their devotion to free-market abstractions, these insiders have lost touch with the grim realities of Middle America, where job losses and stagnating family income are deconstructing the middle class and making this distinctive American achievement a distant memory.
Just this month, the Labor Department reported 12.3 million Americans remain officially unemployed, and 8.8 million are stuck in part-time jobs or have stopped looking for work. Millions of others, mostly fathers in their 50s, have left the labor force. This crisis of the first order should not be ignored by conservatives.
Confounding the human tragedy of more than 20 million middle-income breadwinners not bringing home the bacon is a related indicator that conservatives have also overlooked: the decades-long stagnation of median family income. That lagging vital sign predates not only President Obama but also the Reagan era. After reaching a high (in 2011 dollars) of $51,663 in 1973, family income has struggled mightily to keep up in spite of the Reagan and Clinton-Gingrich economic expansions, the stock market boom between 1982 and 2007 and the emergence of mass higher education. Moreover, those 40 years of stagnation upended the robust family-income growth that the country enjoyed for three decades after World War II.
Imagine where the GOP would be in 2013 had it taken the lead since Reagan's presidency of standing without apology for middle-income families -- whose sons have disproportionately sacrificed their lives fighting our wars. Republican fortunes would surely be reversed had the party implemented pragmatic policies that protected and strengthened the economic and social foundations of the middle class while extending the income-growth pattern that graced the Eisenhower era and the 1960s. If median family income now exceeded $100,000 a year, Barack Obama would still be a U.S. senator representing Illinois.
The party needs a new policy platform -- not a repackaging of Ayn Rand novels or the ideology of Austrian economists, but an agenda that is devoted to creating high-paying jobs for average Americans in an age of globalization. That new agenda begins with an appreciation that the American exceptionalism of the mid-20th century was not the creation of Adam Smith's invisible hand but of careful cultivation of policies that explicitly favored infrastructure, domestic manufacturing, technological innovation and rising wages for middle-income workers.
Indeed, the glories of the postwar era emerged out of the creative fusion of the "American System" of economic development that Abraham Lincoln ushered in and the conservative social policies of the New Deal. The sooner conservatives remember that, the sooner the GOP will be able to reach higher ground.
Robert W. Patterson, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration, recently served as a welfare adviser in the administration of Tom Corbett, governor of Pennsylvania.