Summing up the conventional wisdom, liberal columnist Eugene Robinson recently wrote, “The bad news [for Republicans] is that John McCain intends to run on positions that most voters reject.” Robinson asserts that, on the domestic front, McCain is on the unpopular, fiscally conservative side of the debates over health care and economic policy.
There is plenty of evidence, however, that John McCain’s fiscally conservative positions are actually to his electoral advantage.
On health care, Robinson opines, “While Clinton and Obama have offered far-reaching proposals, Republicans aren’t offering so much as a bandage.”
Once boiled down, both Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama’s “far reaching proposals” favor a significant increase in the federal government’s (that is, the taxpayers’) role in subsidizing health care. By contrast, Senator McCain’s comparatively modest health-care model favors a less-expensive role for the federal government in a system centered on competitive, privately funded care.
Where does the public stand? A November 2007 Gallup Poll asked Americans whether they preferred “replacing the current health care system with a new government run health care system, or maintaining the current system based mostly on private health insurance?” A plurality of 48 percent wished to maintain the current system, while 41 percent opted for a government-run system.
This finding came on the back of an October 2007 USA Today/Gallup Poll that asked Americans their views on S-CHIP, a bill to increase the number of children eligible for government-subsidized health insurance. At the time, the Democrats wanted to allow a family of four earning almost $62,000 to qualify for the program.
Asked “how concerned are you that expanding this program would create an incentive for middle class Americans to drop private health insurance for a public program,” 55 percent of respondents said they were either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned.”
On the economy, according to Robinson, McCain “can only talk about more tax cuts and the eternal glory of free and unfettered markets. Message: We don’t care.” In fact, Americans seem to support McCain’s fiscally conservative stances.
For example, a Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted during the first week of February found that 68 percent of Americans thought cutting taxes “would help fix the country’s economic problems” either “some” or “a great deal.” Last month, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll asked Americans, “Do you think Congress should or should not pass a tax cut?” Fifty-nine percent said Congress should, while only a quarter said it should not.
A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll conducted late last month found that a plurality (45 percent) of respondents preferred an economic agenda focused on tax cuts to one focused on health-care spending. Of particular electoral importance was the finding that independent voters preferred tax cuts to more government spending by a 47-to-40 percent margin.
Senator McCain’s economic platform seeks to make permanent the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. In stark contrast, senators Clinton and Obama both wish to repeal them. According to a Fortune magazine poll conducted last month by Abt SRBI Research, 53 percent of Americans support Senator McCain’s position. Only 37 percent support Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s position.
Clearly, John McCain does not need to camouflage his support for private health care, tax cuts, and spending restraints to be elected president. His real challenge (and, hence, his real opportunity) is to run against the high taxers, big spenders, and economic interventionists in both parties.
He needs to attack the back-to-the-future liberal economics espoused by Clinton and Obama, as well as the big-government conservatism practiced by his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill. If Senator McCain charts that path, most voters will follow him.
— Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute and is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.