The war in Iraq, President Bush’s sagging approval numbers, and a series of scandals are widely considered the major culprits behind Republican losses in the House and Senate yesterday. This analysis is correct, but is incomplete. Abandonment of the principle of limited government must be added to the litany of serious Republican missteps.
A poll commissioned by the Club for Growth in 15 key districts shows surprisingly severe damage to this aspect of the GOP brand (to see a summary of the results, see here). And it’s little wonder. From the last Farm Bill to the Prescription Drug entitlement to McCain-Feingold to runaway spending, Republicans in Washington stopped being the party of limited government sometime ago. And the American people noticed.
Once they lost their less-government, fiscal-discipline branding, Washington Republicans lost a big reason for their majority status. The survey we conducted two nights before the election shows that voters in swing districts no longer believed that Republicans stood for limited government and fiscal discipline. And those same voters overwhelmingly threw the Republicans out of office, and with them their majority.
For years, Republicans had successfully branded themselves as the party that wanted smaller government, less spending, balanced budgets, and low taxes. The brand sold because most Americans understand that governments are inveterate money-wasters and because people naturally want to keep more of what they earn. Voters used to think that Republicans meant what they said when it came to limited government. They don’t any more.
We surveyed 800 very likely voters across the 15 Republican-held districts we thought most likely to switch parties. We excluded those districts plagued by personal scandals. Since most of the fifteen seats did in fact switch from Republican to Democrat, clearly these were battleground districts.
We asked voters if they thought that, over the last four years, “the size and cost of the Federal Government has gone up, gone down, or stayed about the same?” Seventy-three percent recognized that it has gone up. And whom do you think they blame?
We asked voters whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “The Republican Party used to be the Party of economic growth, fiscal discipline, and limited government, but in recent years, too many Republicans in Washington have become just like the big spenders that they used to oppose.” An amazing 66 percent of the respondents agreed with that statement.
We asked which party is doing a better job “eliminating wasteful spending.” The Democrats led 39 percent to 25 percent. Which party is “the party of big government?” The Republicans, by an 11 point margin.
All of this is a big part of the reason the Republican party lost. Republicans squandered one of the very few valuable brands it established in voters’ minds over many years. And voters care about fiscal discipline and lower taxes.
In a question — the answers to which should embarrass even the most shameless appropriators — we asked:
“Which type of candidate for congress would you be more likely to vote for? A candidate who wants to reduce overall Federal spending, even if that includes cutting some money that would come to your district. Or a candidate who is willing to increase overall spending on Federal programs and grow the Federal budget, in order to get more federal spending and projects for your district?”
By more than 2 to 1, voters preferred the candidate who would cut spending. And keep in mind, these were swing districts in which Democrats outnumbered Republicans. Who says earmarks are the ticket to re-election?
Cutting spending and making the Bush tax cuts permanent would have been a better route to re-election for Republicans this year. By a margin of over 2 to 1, voters in these swing districts favored keeping the Bush tax cuts in effect on income-tax rates. The margin was 5 to 2 in favor of keeping the capital gains and dividend rates low, and people supported making the repeal of the death tax permanent by almost 3 to 1.
So if the Republican congress had followed our advice early last summer and abolished all earmarks; cut discretionary spending, even modestly, across-the-board; given the president the line item veto; and made part, any part, of the Bush tax cuts permanent; the elections may well have turned out differently.
Republicans won their majority in 1994 by offering the American people an idea, manifested with a promise. The idea was limited government. The promise was the contract with America. They never got around to fulfilling the promise. And when they gave up on the idea, the American people gave up on them.