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Opinion

Will GOP really take on Big Government -- and Obama's straw-man attacks?

The problem for Republicans after Tuesday’s election is that Americans are opposed to Big Government, but only at a high level of abstraction. Translating that general sentiment into specific program cuts that are popular, or even tolerated, is the hard part.

By William Voegeli / November 4, 2010



Claremont, Calif.

Oscar Wilde said that there are two kinds of tragic stories. One is about people who don’t get what they want, and the other is about people who do.

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In November 2008 liberals got what they wanted, the clearest signal since 1964 that the nation’s voters were prepared to offer reliable, durable majorities to the advocates and practitioners of activist government.

In his post-election cover story for Time magazine, titled “The New Liberal Order,” Peter Beinart argued that Barack Obama had “an excellent chance” to establish “an era of liberal hegemony” because “taking aggressive action to stimulate the economy, regulate the financial industry and shore up the American welfare state won’t divide his political coalition; it will divide the other side.”

This week, conservatives got what they wanted, a firm declaration by the electorate that transforming our country into a European social democracy is an offer we can refuse. The question is whether sometime in 2011 the more numerous Capitol Hill Republicans are going to make some missteps, suffer some setbacks, and find themselves reading articles, as Democrats have been for the past year, about how they “over-interpreted their mandate.”

Overwhelming victories in American presidential elections, and congressional majorities that endured for decades, used to be common. During the past 20 years, however, the presidential elections have all been closer and the congressional majorities more tenuous.

Neither side can gain a lasting advantage

In this long game, played between the 40-yard lines, neither team can gain a clear, lasting advantage. Things have been so closely divided that some of the major achievements associated with one president seem like they were copied from the other party’s platform.

Bill Clinton secured passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and signed the 1996 welfare reform bill, for example, and then George W. Bush added prescription drug coverage to Medicare and dramatically increased federal aid to education through No Child Left Behind.

The problem for Republicans after Tuesday’s election is that Americans are opposed to Big Government, but only at a high level of abstraction. Translating that general sentiment into specific program cuts that are popular, or even tolerated, is the hard part.

Time for adult talk on entitlements

If the GOP launches a new assault on Fort Entitlement – the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs that are on track to bankrupt America – the slender hopes for a more successful outcome than in the past rest on two considerations: First, the emergence of Republican leaders like Governors Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey, who treat fiscal restraint not as one of the things they would like to accomplish, but as The Thing they are determined to accomplish. Messrs. Daniels and Christie speak as adults to adults when discussing taxes and spending with their constituents, and there is abundant evidence that those constituents respond favorably to politicians who acquit themselves with that kind of respect and candor.

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