The single biggest myth in American politics is that advocacy of limited government is a fringe position. The way to attract “moderates” and “independents,” we are told, is for conservatives to adopt some sort of stratagem that involves using government actively but wisely and efficiently, for the right ends, in order to attract the target audience du jour: suburbanites, exurbanites, Bobos, soccer moms, Hispanics, metrosexuals, or any number of other strata of supposedly poll-tested exotica.
As Tuesday’s elections showed, support for limited government remains a mainstream position. Deficit-spending makes majorities angry. Leviathan’s tentacles, its rules and regulations, infuriate most Americans. Big bureaucracies are as popular as swine flu. And far more people than not still just want to be left alone.
Nearly a year ago I traced the electoral success of Republicans when they do restrain spending versus those times when they don’t. Hint: When they save, they win; when they spend, they lose.
The swing voters in most elections aren’t David Brooks’s mythical Bobos in paradise; the swing voters are the Ross Perot/Jesse Ventura “raging moderates” who think that if they must pay their bills, then the government darn well ought to pay its bills as well. But not by raising their taxes, because that makes it harder for them to pay their own bills. These voters work hard; they already give to government far more, financially, than they will ever get in return from it in either cash or services (with the exception that they know they can never repay the unquantifiable sacrifices or risks taken by our uniformed personnel); and they resent like hell when some pencil pusher tries to tell them what to do. They tend to be disaffected voters who wish poxes on both major political houses: Sometimes they stay away from the polls in large numbers, but at other times they turn out en masse, sometimes in favor of a candidate who galvanizes them but often just to “send a message” against incumbents, against the status quo, or against Washington in general. Even when they are “aginners,” though, they also are motivated more by love than hate: love for their country, their freedom, or their families. They are angry not as much because of what they want to tear down, as because they feel a threat to or diminishment of what they most fiercely want to protect.
And these voters insist on balanced budgets. They hate government bailouts and takeovers. They despise government mandates. And they really, really, really hate government pork.
While it would be a mistake to type-cast these voters too narrowly, it is fair to say that one reasonably representative example is Joe the Plumber Wurzelbacher. John McCain was flailing around like a drowning drunk until he grabbed onto Wurzelbacher as if Joe the Plumber were a life-preserver. And Joe struck a chord, clearly stopping McCain’s free-fall last year and starting a belated comeback that made the election a six-point affair rather than a 12-point loss. Joe was, by any measure, a fiscal conservative — and he also was, attitudinally, a Perotista through and through.
Bob McDonnell in Virginia ran on a platform of limited government without tax hikes. He won in an unprecedented landslide. Chris Christie in New Jersey lost an immense lead until, in the final ten days, he finally started emphasizing conservative economic positions. Just as had happened when Christine Todd Whitman embraced that low-tax emphasis 16 years ago, also in the very closing stages of what had been a floundering campaign, Chris Christie’s greater focus on limiting government came just in time to pull out a victory.
In the New York congressional special election, Doug Hoffman’s ability to vault past Dede Scozzafava was fueled largely by his insistence on fiscal propriety. Had Scozzafava not supported the Obama stimulus package, she may well have found a way to win the race. As it was, Hoffman earned 46 percent of the vote despite being less-than-familiar with some important local issues, despite being buried on an unfamiliar ballot line, despite lacking polish or experience as a candidate, despite having Scozzafava take 6 percent of the vote on the GOP line, despite not technically living in the district, and even though Scozzafava endorsed his Democratic opponent. As it was, the Democrat, Bill Owens, publicly rejected the “public option” on health care and worked hard to present himself as a proponent of a sound fisc.
Much more could be said about that race, and about the media’s misrepresentation of its dynamics and of the entire narrative of the various races nationwide. Much more will be written on those subjects in this very space. For now, though, Beltway Republicans should learn the lesson, once and for all, that if they do not fight to limit government, there is no other good reason for them even to exist as a party. And voters will recognize that the GOP solons have no reason to exist, and treat them accordingly.