The Wall Street Journal has an interview with Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate and former governor of Massachusetts. Says Mr. Romney:
"We have a choice in America to be remaining a merit-based opportunity society that follows the Constitution, or to follow the path of Europe. And I'm the guy who believes in the former. I believe America got it right. I believe Europe got it wrong. I believe America must remain the leader of the world. . . . I am absolutely committed to an American century. I see this as an American century."
I understand the shorthand distinction between and American free-market model and a European social-democrat type welfare state, but Mr. Romney, as he goes forward, may want to think carefully about using such a broad brush to condemn Europe. Who is he talking about, exactly? Margaret Thatcher, whose economic policies were as free-market oriented as Ronald Reagan's possibly more so? Vaclav Havel? Lech Walesa? John Paul II? What does it mean for the NATO alliance if candidate Romney or President Romney is going around declaring that a whole bunch of countries in Europe that America is treaty-bound to defend, countries that have been fighting alongside us in Afghanistan and, in the case of some but not all of them, also participated in Iraq, are "wrong," and that America should not follow their path?
If Mr. Romney becomes president, he may find that the real global divides these days are the West — including Europe and America — versus radical Islam and Communist China, and that America and Europe, as free democracies, have a lot more in common than he thought. I understand that America has a long history of trying to distance itself from Europe, starting with the American Revolution. But we also have a long history of cooperation with allies in Europe, including World War II, the Marshall Plan, and the American troop presence in West Germany through the Cold War. I understand, too, that Europe is going through a rough patch right now. It can be tempting to bash Europe, as Europe has made some mistakes. But America has made mistakes, too.
If I had to guess where Mr. Romney is getting this line from, I'd say it is probably from Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Brooks spent time living in Spain, so he knows a lot about this, and he's a smart and lucid guy who is right about a lot of things and has a lot of useful thoughts to contribute. But as one critical reviewer pointed out:
Brooks' key move is to cast our "free enterprise system" as an instance of American exceptionalism -- in contrast to the social democracy of Europe and other advanced nations. Thus, economic policy becomes fodder for cultural politics: Supporters of free markets are defending a unique and precious American heritage, while members of the "30 percent coalition" have thrown in with the foreigners -- worst of all, with effete, decadent Europeans....Is Brooks' distinction between all-American freedom and European-style statism a valid one?...No....Plenty of European countries have markets about as free as those in the land of the free. Look at the ratings provided by the annual Economic Freedom of the World report, co-published by the Cato Institute.
Back in July 2010 I actually sent Arthur Brooks a set of questions about this issue, prompted by his book The Battle. I wrote:
My third (and final) set of questions concerns a point that Lindsey also touches on in his review, and that is the differences between America and Europe. Isn't a love for freedom (or, for that matter, the satisfaction that derives from earned happiness) a human attribute as much as a cultural one? To what degree do you see free enterprise and earned happiness, or smaller government and less redistribution, as particularly American, or as instead, universal values? And if they are particularly American, where does that place people like, say, Margaret Thatcher?
At the time, Mr. Brooks didn't respond.
The Wall Street Journal interview goes on:
Which brings us back to the campaign and why he hasn't broken above 25% in the polls. The former governor seems unconcerned. He compares himself to John McCain, who he says had the same problem in 2008 but won the nomination.
Now there's a comparison!
I don't mean to be too harsh on Mr. Romney here. I think, and have written, that he's been strong in the debates. I think he's good at articulating the benefits of free markets and capitalism and opportunity and merit as opposed to entitlements and redistribution and socialism. But he's got to be careful in these interviews, or else the news out of them will be his Europe-bashing and his likening himself to the last Republican who lost a presidential election to Barack Obama, rather than whatever message he is trying to get out that will help his campaign and the country.