Last Tuesday night, I had the privilege of participating in a U.S. Senatorial Forum held by students in the Institute of Politics at UNC- Chapel Hill. This opportunity was unique, in that it was open to ALL U.S. Senate candidates regardless of party affiliation. Some Republicans asked why I was going, others chastised me for having no strategy and prioritizing a night with “liberal students” over more time spent with Republican voters at GOP events. In the end, I am so glad I participated, and believe that the students that planned the event, and those in attendance, were among the most gracious and respectful I’ve encountered in the past year.
The central themes were quite different from those we usually cover in Republican-only forums. For example, several questions centered around the idea of helping people get back on their feet after the pandemic – topics like addressing mental health issues and the shortage of health care workers, and assistance to those trying to re-enter the workforce. In these areas, I believe that our aims are very similar but the means for achieving efficiency and effectiveness in those areas is quite different. I spent my allotted two minutes explaining, first, how the federal government is a behemoth – which makes it slower, more expensive, and somewhat ambiguous in its approach to helping individuals with their specific needs. I shared that, though mass media would have Americans believe otherwise, I have not been to a place during COVID where churches, community centers, and individuals have not been passing out food, gathering clothing, or taking up donations for small business owners affected by government-mandated closures. These organizations – being small, local, and aware of the needs specific to their community – have been the lifeblood that helps North Carolinians in need, even before the pandemic began… and they’ve done it with private and voluntary donations that are paid in full (rather than involuntary tax dollars that will cost us triple or accrue additional national debt for our children to pay).
Since mental health was one of the specific issues raised, I gave the example of the unfortunate shortcomings and failures of a government mental health system – the Veterans Administration treatment of our current and former military. Although it’s not for lack of trying on the part of many in the government, all data points to the fact that we have done a grossly inadequate job of taking care of those who serve our country when they return home, to include mental health. The poignance and emotional connection to this particular issue in North Carolina – a state with one of the largest active and former military populations – is not lost on me. In sum, as a Republican I believe – your money, your choice has been shown time and again to be the superior way to address the needs of individuals, while the federal government has proven more effective at the overarching needs of all citizens and states as outlined in the Constitution – namely, national defense.
I also talked about the economic domino effect of introducing artificial market forces – something the pandemic response in the United States demonstrates quite well. When we decided to close America, mandate small businesses put a sign on the window and send everybody home, we set into motion a course of events that would change the economy. Whether you feel these decisions were warranted or not, many Americans found themselves suddenly unable to support their families as a result. What does the government do when there is an emergency and states need help? The only thing it can do – it pushes aid to provide relief. As people become dependent on that relief, everything in the market is affected – labor preferences, wage agreements, supply chain production – which drives up the price of goods and services. Even though markets are reopening today and some people are returning to the workforce, the ripple effect caused by this disruption of natural market forces will endure, and America will struggle for a time. In particular, when we couple pandemic aid with extensive additional government-proposed spending, we will see longer-lasting negative impacts – namely inflation.
Of course we talked about guns, and which gun control policies candidates support. This was another area where I talked about the need to gather better data and apply more rigor to inform decision making. For example, in support of gun control measures, Democrats frequently cite that gun deaths and injuries increased during the pandemic. I argue that same data set also shows that mass shootings – an often given reason for gun control measures – declined substantially during the pandemic. The likely reason for both of these statistics is the same – everybody was stuck at home (another biproduct of artificial market forces).
That aside, the bigger issue – as we all know, is that the right to bear arms is contained in Article 2 of the Constitution… and although we’d like to split hairs about the need for this silencer or that automatic weapon, the basic premise is that individuals have a right to protect themselves, their liberty, their families – against threat from others, and including the government in extreme cases. We just watched the Taliban use advanced weaponry we left behind in Afghanistan to swiftly overtake the freedoms we spent twenty years helping a generation establish. While America is not Afghanistan, there have been instances of internal skirmishes in the past few years that, when combined with the pandemic, have made ALL Americans nervous. In times of scarcity or fear, people cling to identity politics for security; they start to question governmental institutions – like police and military. Fear drives violence and division, and often erupts into conflict. While a solid data set does not exist, many press anecdotes and interviews from the pandemic show a notable disassociation of gun ownership and political identity last year. In other words, many first-time gun owners never previously considered owning a gun, and reported that their politics had been pro gun control prior to the pandemic. This area deserves additional careful consideration and rigor prior to any serious legislative discussion about altering or revoking a freedom.
As the only Republican candidate that evening, most answers stood in direct opposition to my Democratic counterparts. But, there was one question on which some of us were able to find common ground – hope. The specific question came in the form of whether bipartisanship is still possible or not given current “operating conditions” in Washington, D.C. There may have been a single candidate who felt that throwing in the towel and operating unilaterally is on the table --- but most everyone agreed that all hope is not lost for bipartisan cooperation. For my part, I added that historically, the most “stable” legislation, and therefore the healthiest for America, has been that with bipartisan support. When the left swings violently left, the right swings more violently right, and we spend all of our time and taxpayer money reversing the legislation from the prior administration, abusing unilateral policymaking loopholes like executive power, and, more generally, doing a disservice to Americans. I frequently say that, in today’s world, the most steadfast and enduring legislation seldom meets the threshold of the news cycle.
Perhaps the biggest goal that I had for last week’s forum is to start reshaping the false narrative about what “all Republicans” are and what “we” represent. I tried to shift the conversation from WHAT I believe to a rigorous dialogue about WHY I believe it. A few students contacted me afterwards to tell me that, though our political views are different, they appreciated getting a rigorous perspective on MY Republican philosophy. This is how we change our story. It’s possible.