Political campaigns require perpetual travel that sometimes makes cities blur together into one giant conurbation, and conversations along the way seem like a continuous thread. But last week, as I was heading to yet another city on behalf of the Romney/Ryan campaign, I had a conversation that shook me out of election fatigue and crystallized for me why all this political rushing around was worthwhile. Twenty minutes speaking with an anonymous taxi driver in Washington, D.C., did more to steel me for the final push to Election Day than the Republican Convention and all the debates combined.
I wish I knew his name. He had a cross hanging from his rear view mirror and a cheery demeanor uncommon among rush-hour drivers. I was busy double-checking that I had not left anything behind when he struck up a conversation:
“Where are you from?” he shouted over the radio. I replied Massachusetts, to which he exclaimed, “The home of Mitt Romney! Do you know him?”
I laughed and said yes, that I had worked with Mitt Romney and he was a good man. Then I asked the taxi driver where he was from, in part to change the subject. I still try to follow the antediluvian rule that it is impolite to discuss politics or religion with strangers. But I was about to do both.
The driver, I learned, was from Pakistan, a member of the Christian minority community, and he matter-of-factly ticked off the hardships of being a practicing Christian in a state where apostasy can be punished by death and church burnings don’t merit a report in the news. He said he came to the U.S. in the mid-1990s with the help of a friend and became an American citizen five years later.
He had begun life here working at McDonalds for $4.50 per hour, but soon added more and higher-paying jobs, saving his money until he was able to buy a gas station of his own. He was enormously proud of his time as a small business owner. His income from the gas station had allowed him to bring his elderly parents to the U.S. so that he could care for them, and eventually he sold the gas station in order to raise the money necessary to return to Pakistan to marry.
Today, he and his wife, their two young daughters and his parents live together here in the U.S. He’s back working for others, as a driver, but is looking forward to the day when he can start another small business. He knows it will happen. Every step of the story was punctuated with, “Bless America!” He noted that while he had initially been registered as a Democrat, he recently changed parties and was planning to vote for Mitt Romney because of Romney’s outspoken commitment to religious freedom and our nation’s entrepreneurial spirit had touched a chord.
It has become almost received wisdom that the American Dream is endangered or even just a discredited myth we must now learn to live without. The idea that opportunity exists for those willing to study and work hard is losing ground to fatalism that our children may not have the upward mobility and options previous generations enjoyed. That fear is made more real when more than half the young people leaving college today are unemployed — or stuck in temporary or part-time jobs — well into their 20s and too many are burdened with heavy student debt. Clearly, something is wrong.
I have always defended the existence of the American Dream because my own experience taught me that hard work, public education and a measure of good luck can result in opportunity. My parents were of modest means and I attended struggling public schools in Daytona Beach, FL, including one where my mother was a teacher. When my father suffered near-fatal cardiac arrest at age 56, he could never work again. So at 15, I began to work: first for minimum wage as a clerk in a souvenir shop, then I added a better paying job programming computers at the local newspaper.
When I was admitted to Harvard, it was not only a cause for celebration, but also another financial challenge. In the end, my mother’s sacrifice and financial prudence, my various jobs, Harvard’s generosity and a Rotary International scholarship got me through my education. I have good reason to believe that anything is possible in America and am deeply grateful for the opportunities I have had. I want that kind of opportunity to be there for everyone.
A chance meeting in a taxi on the way to the airport last week gave me renewed hope that the American Dream is still out there for those willing to work hard, to pull together with one’s loved ones, and to take a chance. I still want to believe in that dream of opportunity, but I fear we are heading away from it if we stay on our current course.
I have cause for concern. I know that many small businesses, like the one the taxi driver dreams of starting, pay the individual income rate and stand to be crushed under the weight of higher taxes if the Bush-era tax cuts are allowed to expire. I know that small businesses are already postponing hiring or can’t get off the ground due to the uncertain cost of complying with federal healthcare mandates. We are careering toward a “fiscal cliff” of higher taxes and draconian automatic budget cuts that is projected to throw our tepid economic recovery into reverse. I worry that if these Obama-era policies are allowed to stand, small businesses won’t have a chance — and neither will the dreams of their owners.
There is no opportunity without jobs, and entrepreneurs must be set free to create them: they are ready and waiting. I know there are millions of American Dream stories out there still waiting to be written, so I’m heading back to the airport. I’m inspired to hit the campaign trail twice as hard, both for Mitt Romney and for all Americans who worry — with cause — that the American Dream may be slipping away. It’s not too late to turn it around.
LISTEN to Kerry Healey discuss this piece on Radio Boston: