In an excellent essay in the Washington Post yesterday, Dick Armey made the case that Republicans’ current predicament stems from their abandonment of small government principles. Matthew Yglesias countered that the Iraq War is what’s actually hurting Republicans, pointing out that “all of the key policy steps that Armey’s citing actually came before the 2004 election, which went fine for the GOP.” However, Yglesias is oversimplifying things by neglecting to mention other developments during the past two years and ignoring important distinctions between midterm and presidential elections. In short, the spending problem has gotten worse since 2004, and because this year’s election is less consequential, disgruntled limited government conservatives seem more willing to sit out than they were when the presidency was up for grabs.
Here’s what I mean. By 2004, there was already plenty of frustration among conservatives with big spending Republicans, but the stakes were a lot higher in that election. The idea of John Kerry as president during wartime was all that was needed to energize conservatives and get them to volunteer and show up at the polls in large numbers. No serious conservatives were arguing in 2004 that it would be better if Republicans lost, but this year many prominent ones have made precisely that argument. While limited government conservatives may have been disappointed by Bush’s first term spending record, things got progressively worse in his second term. Congressional Republicans abandoned Social Security reform without putting up a fight, went on a post-Katrina spending spree, and passed the pork laden energy and transportation bills. Meanwhile, the true cost of the Medicare prescription drug benefit became more apparent. At the same time that the frustration with Republicans has grown, the consequences of defeat have diminished. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing that this election is inconsequential, but just that the stakes are not as high as they were in 2004. This year, we are electing individual senators and representatives, not a commander-in-chief, so limited government conservatives may be less motivated to volunteer and more willing to “send a message” by staying home than they were during the last presidential election. It’s also worth noting that during midterm elections, turnout, on average, tends to hover around 40 percent, meaning that energizing the base becomes even more crucial. Therefore, the effect of disgruntled conservatives sitting out becomes magnified, and thus the spending issue becomes a bigger factor.
It’s also worth mentioning this poll, which suggests that frustration with big government Republicans isn’t limited to the conservative base:
A quarter century after the Reagan revolution and a dozen years after Republicans vaulted into control of Congress, a new CNN poll finds most Americans still agree with the bedrock conservative premise that, as the Gipper put it, “government is not the answer to our problems — government is the problem.”
The poll released Friday also showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans perceive, correctly, that the size and cost of government have gone up in the past four years, when Republicans have had a grip on the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House….
Queried about their views on the role of government, 54 percent of the 1,013 adults polled said they thought it was trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Only 37 percent said they thought the government should do more to solve the country’s problems.