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Last week’s Republican surprise has left pundits and news analysts hard-pressed to explain the sea change in American politics. A number of explanations—from the war with Iraq to lackluster campaigning by Democrats—have been put forward to understand an election that left Republicans in charge of the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Yet, in many ways, the election may be explained best as a re-affirmation of the principles of limited government, first established by the Founders. Moving beyond the political parties to the ideas and issues that concerned the voters provides important insights into the final results as well as guideposts for the new majority.
Many point to the threat of war with Iraq as the key to the Republican takeover. While it is true that the threat of war strengthened the president’s hand, this should not be surprising. One of the most fundamental roles of government is to protect its citizens from foreign attacks, and the new threat of terrorism has increased the demand by many for a more secure nation. Democrat opposition or mere posturing on this issue was bound to strengthen the hand of Republicans.
Yet it is not obvious that the war on terrorism drowned out domestic economic concerns, particularly in a sagging economy with declining stock prices and a rash of corporate scandals, all duly reported by the media. In fact, important economic questions such as the president’s tax cuts and Social Security reform were significant issues in many campaigns. Where these issues were debated, more candidates for limited government came out on top. Democrats clinging to a big government agenda simply did not impress the electorate.
Consider Social Security reform, for example. Democratic strategists seized this as a campaign issue, yet did little more than attempt to scare seniors with threats they would lose their retirement savings if Republicans took office. In reality, Social Security is in desperate need of reform, and most working Americans realize this. By 2016 the program will be spending more on benefits than it collects in payroll taxes; by 2041 it will be out of money altogether. Without real reforms, Americans can expect to pay more taxes and receive fewer benefits (if any) from Social Security. Republicans who talked about the issue offered the possibility of real reform, such as personal retirement accounts controlled by the individual instead of a set of benefits controlled by the government; Democrats offered nothing in the way of real reform.
In addition, the Democratic economic agenda that voters did see offered little to instill voter confidence. The Senate—the only body controlled by Democrats—failed to produce a budget resolution to set parameters for spending during the appropriations process. The Senate also failed to make President Bush’s tax cuts permanent, and key senators, such as Sen. Kennedy, had even raised the specter of repealing the tax cuts as unaffordable. Republicans, on the other hand, have revived the notion of tax cuts, with the administration calling for fundamental tax reform. Here, again, voters are well aware of the onerous tax code with its inherent inefficiencies and inequities. Talk of a fairer, simpler tax code resonated with taxpayers.
In fact, Democrats appeared to spend more time during the campaign complaining about the lack of attention on the domestic economy than offering proposals for economic growth. What policies did emerge were tired calls for more government spending and increased mandates on the private sector. Businesses and corporations were vilified in favor of expanding the size and scope of government. Yet, Americans, roughly half of whom own stock, appeared to favor the market over government on the issue of economic growth. Allowing individuals to keep their money to save, invest, or spend as they see fit is an important tenet for most Americans. Washington, by contrast, is viewed as a source of interminable gridlock. With money tight in a slow economy, voters opted to keep their money rather than tying up more in Washington.
The Founders established a limited government that would provide the framework for economic prosperity and growth. Security, private property, and the rule of law are the foundations of a free society that allows individuals the pursuit of happiness. Those values have changed little since the nation first emerged, and the recent elections demonstrate they still resonate with the majority of Americans. Now that they are in power, Republicans would do well to hew close to these principles and avoid the allure of government spending. Politicians are drawn to spending, regardless of party, but voters have demonstrated their preference for less rather than more government.