Big Government Becomes the Battle-Line Issue

As the battle over the Democrats' various health care bills takes place in town hall meetings across the country, or as elected Democrats hide from protesters who refuse to accept the purported "facts" justifying their bills, it's becoming clear that the focus of our politics has changed utterly in the first seven months of the Obama administration.

In the decade from 1995 to 2005 we were a 49 percent nation, with Republicans winning between 49 and 51 percent of the vote for House of Representatives, Democratic presidential candidates receiving 48 or 49 percent of the vote, and their opponents (including Ross Perot in 1996) receiving between 49 and 51 percent. During that time the demographic factor most highly correlated with voting behavior was religion, or degree of religiosity. Americans were like two equal-sized armies in a culture war, and cultural issues like abortion were central to political divisions.

That era ended with George W. Bush's perceived failures on Katrina and in Iraq, and Democrats won handsome victories in 2006 and 2008 as the un-Bush party. Now new lines may be forming over the big-government policies of the Obama administration, or of the congressional Democratic leadership to which Barack Obama, to the surprise of many, has subcontracted the fashioning of the stimulus package, cap-and-trade legislation, and the health care bills.

And the tea party and health care protesters, in their often unsophisticated way, are raising an issue that seems to have become central to our politics: Should we vastly increase the size and scope of the federal government?

One clear sign is the springing up of angry and articulate opposition. The tea parties this spring and the so-called "mobs" of protesters against the health care bill seem to have sprung up largely spontaneously; it is those who support the Democrats who appear in organized busloads with mass-produced signs.

And the tea party and health care protesters, in their often unsophisticated way, are raising an issue that seems to have become central to our politics: Should we vastly increase the size and scope of the federal government? This issue was long dormant, with a consensus prevailing during the quarter-century of low-inflation economic growth from the early 1980s to the financial crisis of 2008.

Now it's clearly presented, thanks to the Democrats' plans. As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke noted on June 3, the national debt as a percentage of the gross domestic product will increase from about 40 percent in 2007 to 70 percent in 2011--the highest level since the years after the massive debt buildup in World War II. "The fundamental decision that the Congress, the administration and the American people must confront," Bernanke testified, "is how large a share of the nation's economic resources to devote to federal government programs."

Bernanke didn't ask the question, but some of the protesters do: Does our financial predicament rise to the level of a national emergency like world war? If not, why are we expanding the government, permanently, as we did, temporarily, then?

The insightful Brookings political scientist Ruy Teixeira recently wrote that culture war politics is over, replaced by economic politics, and argued that Republicans need a new playbook. True. But the outbreak of widespread spontaneous protests and the plunging support in the polls for the Democrats' health care plans suggest the Democrats also need a different playbook.

Democratic leaders seem to be acting on two unspoken assumptions. One is that the economic distress of the financial crisis and deep recession would create an appetite for larger government. The second is that the voters who gave Obama and congressional Democrats 53 percent majorities last November enthusiastically supported all the items on the Democrats' wish lists.

Now both assumptions are starting to seem dubious. Polling suggests that fewer voters see health insurance companies as villains (after all, most people can switch policies next year) than see peril in the prospect of being slammed into a government health insurance plan from which there is no escape--the stated goal of many architects of the Democratic bills. Meanwhile, the government ran a $181,000,000,000 deficit in July--nearly $6,000,000 every day.

Here's a sign that economic issues are not working for Democrats as they expected. In this year's New Jersey and Virginia governor races, Democrats are lagging in the polls and attacking their opponents on abortion. This reversion to culture-war politics looks like desperation when voters are focused on the size and scope of government.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

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  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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