Commentary

Give The Voters What They Wanted: Smaller Government

By Patrick Basham
This essay originally appeared in the New York Post.
Conventional wisdom holds that the only “mandate” a President George W. Bush will have is for compromise with the agenda of his opponent, Al Gore. Wrong. Close as the election was, public opinion data from a range of sources - Election Day exit polls, surveys by major news media, research by leading academics and policy groups - shows that most voters support Bush’s desire for a smaller, less intrusive federal government.

So a Bush administration should not seek bipartisan consensus in favor of activist government. Instead, it should seek to express the popular will to reduce government. Bush’s emphasis on cutting taxes (in his address just after Florida’s certification) was a good first step.

Throughout the campaign, 60 percent of voters thought that Bush’s policy prescriptions were either “about right” or, amazingly, “too liberal,” suggesting considerable comfort with a limited government stance. In an October CNN/Time poll, for example, a majority believed Bush shared their personal view on the appropriate size of government.

Similarly, 62 percent of respondents told a mid-October Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that individuals and businesses should take more responsibility for solving America’s problems; only 23 percent said government should take more responsibility.

As The New York Times reported just after Election Day, “Mr. Bush’s argument that government’s role in public life needed to be reduced clearly resonated. That philosophy of restricting government was shared … by many voters.”

What about the claim that the electorate embraces small-government rhetoric but prefers big government when it comes to specific programs? Again, the data don’t bear that out.

What should the new president do first? The top answer in exit polls was “improve education” - an issue both candidates stressed, though with sharply different approaches. But voters’ No. 2 choice was “cut taxes” - ahead even of strengthening Social Security. And tax-cutting easily beat out (by a five-to-two ratio) “curbing prescription-drug prices.”

What should be the top priority for the budget surplus? “Cut income taxes” or “reduce the national debt” were the answers of 52 percent of voters; just 6 percent wanted higher funding for social programs other than Social Security.

Al Gore’s “politics of envy” campaign clearly failed. When exit polls asked about tax plans, a majority chose a larger, across-the-board tax cut rather than a smaller tax cut targeted to lower- and middle-income people. And a poll in late October by The Washington Post and Harvard University found that more Americans thought Bush’s larger tax-cut plan would help, not hurt, the economy.

Social Security reform is no longer the “third rail” of American politics. Bush’s trumpeting of a partially privatized program for younger Americans helped his quest for the White House. An early September CNN/Time poll, for example, found 53 percent in favor of a plan in which individuals could invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market, with 39 percent opposed.

In Election Day exit polls, 57 percent of voters supported Bush’s plan, while Gore’s scare-mongering on this issue resonated with only 39 percent.

The electorate favors tax cuts, Social Security privatization and smaller government. It opposes more government health programs, new social spending and policies that are “too liberal.” That helps explain why a late October CNN/Time poll found a majority agreeing that Bush “would bring needed change” to Washington. With popular sentiment on the side of limited government, the policy direction of a Bush administration should be clear.

Patrick Basham is a senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.