- The Washington Times - Friday, February 3, 2012

The defining moment of President Obama’s 2008 campaign came on the night he clinched the Democratic Party nomination. In a statement capturing all the messianic hopes and solipsistic hubris of the campaign, he outlined a remarkable vision for his presidency: “If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that, generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war, and secured our nation, and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.” Three-and-a-half years and a long list of unfulfilled promises later, the crowds may be more sober, but the president’s confidence in the power of his government to solve the problems of the nation is not.

The president’s recent State of the Union address opened and closed with tributes to the military. In between, his focus was domestic, calling upon Congress and the American people at large to attack our economic challenges with military-style efficiency, unity and singleness of purpose.

Not enough tech-savvy workers? No problem: “We know how to fix it.” Troubles with our dumbed-down public schools: “We know how to solve them.” Universally affordable college education, a “clean energy” revolution, new roads and bridges - and maybe a federally funded cure for cancer - all are just a common-sense, bipartisan bill away.

Such claims attempt to cut through any troubles with an analogy between military and civilian life. If we can get Osama bin Laden, we can get unemployment and all the rest. All that stands in the way is a recalcitrant Congress (meaning Republican House) holding back progress for the sake of the members’ financial or partisan gain. No legitimate opposition is possible: “We should all want a smarter, more effective government.”

The smarts we need, however, are not those of the presidentially appointed academic and industry czars who control the automotive, health care, energy and finance industries, but those of the shoeless itinerant philosopher Socrates, who claimed to know only what he didn’t know. A government with real smarts, in other words, would understand that it is not smart enough to micromanage the economy, “fix” this and “solve” that. It also would understand that a country running annual trillion-dollar deficits - borrowing 40 cents on every dollar of federal spending - needs more work than a little efficiency-expert trimming at the margins. Presidential boasting over adding fewer new regulations than one’s predecessor will not do. Without a serious challenge to the size and scope of the president’s political pretensions, we will effectively govern our way into oblivion.

While the vision for such a challenge may come from congressional leaders such as Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Jim DeMint, it must be amplified by the presidential megaphone. A Republican presidential candidate offering only a GOP version of “smarter, more effective government” won’t win - and won’t deserve to win. Anyone who thinks the status quo is sustainable (or is willing to “hope” that it is) will like the president’s bought-and-paid-for-by-people-richer-than-you version better than a slightly slimmed-down private equity firm CEO’s alternative.

A Republican presidential candidate offering only a GOP version of ocean-controlling and earth-healing won’t win. If you have room for moon colonies in your vision of American government, it will be hard to argue that we can’t afford the terrestrial goodies of the welfare state.

An effective Republican presidential campaign will, rather, have to be built on modesty - modesty in the message and modesty in the messenger. Governments can do a small number of very important things well. Presidents can do a small number of very important things well. It is not an electoral suicide mission to remind the American people of these facts; a measure of sobriety suits our sober times. More important, it is the only way forward if we are to avoid a most un-American modesty in our expectations for the long-term freedom and prosperity of our country - and any candidate, for any office, can help by saying that.

C. David Corbin and Matthew T. Parks teach politics at the King’s College. They are the co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (Wipf & Stock, 2011).