Healthy families key to healthy economy

The media have honed in on Republican presidential contenders who are attacking Mitt Romney’s economic and business background. Meanwhile, one candidate is talking about the economy in a way that could be very helpful to Republicans on Election Day.

Some of Romney’s opponents have been criticizing him for his record as head of Bain Capital, a private equity firm that bought and transformed struggling companies. One candidate accused Romney of having “looted” companies and laid off workers. Another called Bain economic “vultures” feeding on dead companies.

Candidates’ records are certainly fair game. But, those attacking Romney are using the type of anti-business rhetoric that you’d expect to hear at an Occupy Wall Street rally.

Some Romney advocates, meanwhile, have gone too far in the other direction in trying to portray any scrutiny of Bain as an attack on the entire free enterprise system. Conservatives by definition support free-market capitalism. But we must be smart about the way we talk about it.

None of these arguments are helpful to the conservative cause at a time when capitalism has a bit of a branding problem.

According to an April GlobeScan poll, 59% of Americans “strongly agreed” or “somewhat agreed” with the idea that “the free market system and free market economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world.” That was down from 80% in 2002. That followed a 2009 Rasmussen poll finding that a bare majority, 53%, of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism.

A new Pew poll suggests Obama’s class warfare rhetoric is having an effect. It finds that two-thirds of Americans think there are “very strong” or “strong” class conflicts in society, a 19 percentage point increase from 2009.  Respondents also said that the conflict between rich and poor is the country’s greatest social conflict.

To win in November and beyond, Republicans can’t let Obama get away with trying to pit Americans of different incomes against one another. They need to draw voters to their party with a message that’s not simply “let the free market decide.”

To attract working class voters in pivotal states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, including Democrats and Independents who have been victims of the Obama economy, Republicans must stress that Big Business, just like Big Government, needs reforming.

But they also should emphasize that our country’s economic health is linked to the health of our most important values—hard work, personal responsibility and discipline—and social institutions—marriage and the family.

Rick Santorum, whom I have endorsed for president, has discussed the struggles of the working class America he came from. And, in the debates and on the campaign trail, Santorum is the candidate who regularly and articulately makes this link.

As Santorum said at a town hall in Iowa, “Yes, [the election is] about growth and the economy, [but] it’s also about what is at the core of our country…faith and family. You can’t have a strong economy, you can’t have limited government if the family is breaking down and we don’t live good, moral and decent lives.”

In the NBC News/Facebook debate, Santorum responded to a question about how, if elected, he would use the bully pulpit of the presidency. “I believe that there’s one thing that is undermining this country and that is the breakdown of the American family,” he said.

“It’s undermining our economy. You see the rates of poverty among single parent families…it’s five times higher, in the single parent family…Why isn’t the president of the United States talking…about that?”

Santorum’s tax proposals would, among other things, triple the personal deduction for each child and eliminate marriage tax penalties in the federal tax code. He would keep tax deductions for charitable giving, health care, home mortgage interest and retirement.

James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute has said that Santorum uses “tax policy as pro-family, pro-natalism social policy.” The New York Times called him “a low-tax, small-government Republican and an antipoverty crusader.”

Since Reagan, the Republican Party has been the party of the working class. The Obama campaign would like nothing more than to attract these voters by making them believe the election is a choice between Big Government and Big Business. That’s a choice Republicans probably cannot win.

Republican candidates must be able to vigorously defend capitalism. They must be willing and able to explain how Obama’s socialism destroys the economy in part by undermining the family and eroding personal responsibility.

And they must emphasize that the restoration of America’s credit rating will mean little without the restoration of its character and values, and that there’s nothing more integral to the nation’s long-term economic success than successful families.