12/21/2012 03:50 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Joie de Vivre vs. Pursuit of Happiness: The GOP Needs to Help Make the Good Times Roll or Have No Future

In France most of the cows are white. I know this because I was just there two weeks ago, rambling around the countryside. Their horses look different than ours, too. So do their houses, their toilets, their trains, their cars and even their sandwiches.

On their highways they have no toll collectors. If you don't have exact change, you need to insert money or a credit card into a kind of ATM. When they have crews out doing road construction and need to block off a lane, they don't have flagmen, they have automated lights that count down the time before you can proceed. At many train stations you have to pay to use the facilities.

In France it's really next to impossible to get fired from a job, yet the current unemployment rate is 10.3 percent. Most Frenchmen get four to five weeks of paid vacation a year and if you've been on the job for 20-plus years you could even qualify for six weeks of vacation. They have a legalized 35-hour work week. French people actually take lunch -- they go out not for 10 minutes or eat at their desks like Americans, they're out for the full hour. Alcohol is still consumed at lunch over there.

Yet with all this supposed lollygagging about, France still has the fifth highest GDP according to the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank and the CIA World Fact Book. When it comes to per-capita income, France ranks only 23rd, according to the World Bank, at about $35,000 a year -- and this is heavily taxed. The U.S., by comparison, is ranked eighth at $48,442. We have the pursuit of happiness. They have joie de vivre. Therein lies the rub.

In an election analogous to our own recent contest for the White House, in 2012 the French chose the Socialist Francois Hollande by 51.64 percent versus 48.36 percent for the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Sarkozy was a fiscal and immigration conservative. He upped the retirement age, he cut the number of public sector employees, he advocated cutting immigration by half and instituting tighter border controls, promoted workfare, opposed gay marriage. The majority of Frenchmen weren't buying it.

In our own tight presidential race the American people were presented with a similar choice -- a whole lot of budget slashing, belt-tightening and smaller government from Mitt Romney wasn't as appetizing to most Americans. The Republican menu also included a whole lot of moralizing on gay marriage, abortion and the like. Despite the profusion of diet commercials on TV and the popularity of shows like The Biggest Loser, most Americans want to loosen their belts, not tighten them, no matter what the doctor tells you and no matter if the doctor is right.

One of the mantras intoned endlessly by GOP candidates and pundits was the warning that we would soon become like Greece or Spain. Most folks have little comprehension of trillions in budgetary dollars, but they do know about the quality of their lives and, from where a lot of Americans are sitting, Europe and the European way of life doesn't look too bad.

While we're busy chasing and pursuing happiness, many Europeans (especially the French) seem to have it enshrined by law with their plethora of vacations, national medical insurance, (supposed) job security, etc. We're breaking our backs for maybe two weeks of annual vacation, lunches at our desks, 50-hour weeks and inadequate health coverage, and the GOP is trying to tell us what we can do in our own bedrooms.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Florida Senator Marco Rubio on Bill O'Reilly talk about the presidential election. He couldn't explain why he and the state's GOP governor couldn't deliver the Sunshine State for Romney. It's simple: Folks don't want to be told who they can sleep or live with, what they can or can't do with their bodies or what intoxicant of choice they can use in their down time. The Republicans -- supposedly the party of smaller government, less regulation and less intrusion in your life by said government -- is paradoxically the party of religious coercion when it comes to personal status issues. This is highly inconsistent and voters see it.

One of the reasons the Spielberg film Lincoln is so popular (aside from great writing and acting) is that Lincoln, the man, heroically stood up for freedom and forward thinking. At one point the GOP was the party that freed the slaves, created the national parks and conserved the environment, the party that broke up the trusts and monopolies, the party that won the Cold War.

Where are the Republicans' big ideas today? Just saying "no" to everything does not constitute vision. Prissily interfering in people's private lives is not an ideology. Blindly supporting unrestricted gun ownership is not being on the right side of history.

There are a lot of Americans who support the notion of government living within its means, who support lower taxation and smaller government, who support a strong military and activist foreign policy, but that's not going to be enough when the GOP has got their fingers in our eyes when it comes to our private lives.

The GOP needs to say to the American people that "we just don't care who you're married to, who you sleep with and what you smoke and, by the way, those lower tax rates, we're going to finance that with taxes on legalized marijuana." There was a time when alcohol, lotteries and casinos were an anathema, now they're endemic. Times change. The GOP has got to get on the right side of change to be relevant and the GOP has got to come up with some big time ideas to improve society and people's lives so as to have a shot at being a majority party. Just voting "no" all the time is not an inspiring vision.