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As GOP leaders meet in Maryland this week, the Washington conventional wisdom is that it’s the Republican Party that is struggling to stay relevant in the Era of Obama. The Democrats, the insiders tell us, are the ones with the wind–and the American people–at their backs.
The problem with conventional wisdom is that it’s just that–conventional and complacent. When I became Speaker in 1995, only one member of the House had ever served under a Republican Speaker: Democrat Sidney Yates of Illinois. Prior to the 1994 elections, the conventional wisdom was that Sidney would never suffer such an indignity again.
Astute analysts ignore the Washington conventional wisdom and focus on the political winds blowing from the fifty states. And the public opinion currents in America today are becoming eerily similar to those circulating in 1993.
Today, just as then, Washington liberals are getting complacent. They’re ignoring mounting evidence that the American people don’t share their desire for bigger government, higher taxes and a liberal social agenda.
Take, for instance, the political earthquake that shook California this week. On Tuesday, Golden State voters resoundingly rejected five ballot measures that would, among other things, raise taxes, borrow against future lottery receipts and lock revenue surpluses in a Sacramento slush fund–all ostensibly to close California’s gaping $42 billion budget deficit.
Even though supporters of the measures outspent opponents by 10-to-1, the only measure that passed was one that prohibits pay raises for elected officials in times of deficits.
Already the spin has started with the liberal elites attributing the death of these big government ballot measures to their complexity and to low voter turnout, but Democrats would do well to heed the larger message being sent: Even in a blue state such as California, which supported Barack Obama by a whopping 61 percent in last fall’s election, there is no popular appetite for higher taxes and bigger government.
And not just in California, but across the country, opinion is shifting against major parts of the liberal Washington agenda.
Recent Gallup polling contains two major public opinion shifts away from liberalism that Americans have yet to see reflected in their leadership in Washington.
First, in April, Gallup found that fewer Americans support gun control than at anytime in the 50-year history of the poll. Only 29% of Americans said possession of hand guns should be made illegal in the United States.
Then, just this month, came a truly shocking finding. The Gallup poll found that, for the first time, a majority of Americans describe themselves as “pro-life.” Asked whether they consider themselves pro-life or pro-choice, 51 percent chose the former, compared to 42 percent for the latter. Just a year ago, 50 percent of Americans called themselves pro-choice and just 44 percent self-identified as pro-life.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these public opinion policy shifts are beginning to be reflected in party affiliation. Although the percentage of Americans calling themselves Republicans today has taken a heavy hit compared to earlier in the decade, the data from the past few months tells a different story.
No, more Americans aren’t identifying as Republicans. But Gallup’s weekly tracking poll shows an increase in Americans identifying as independent. And where are these converts coming from? From Democrats. The same poll shows a slight decline in Americans who call themselves Democrats.
Only time will tell if this small shift in the data will become a major trend. But taken together, the results in California and the latest polling data seem to indicate a real opportunity for a center-right leader with a center-right message.
Americans are increasingly out of synch with the liberal Washington establishment. But what are they getting from their leaders in Washington? Plans to send Guantanamo terrorists to American communities and other far left proposals that will damage our national security. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who made the unfortunate decision to call the CIA liars and criminals, has seen her approval rating plummet from 51 percent in January to 39 percent today.
The faint hissing sound you are beginning to hear is the air slowly leaking out of the Washington conventional wisdom. The question is, anyone in the elites listening?
Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI.
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