Commentary

What if Economic Conservatives Stay Home on Election Day?

Hardly a day seems to pass without leaders of the Religious Right threatening that so-called “values voters” may not turn out to vote unless the Republican nominee is reliably conservative on issues like abortion or gay marriage.

“Our voters would rather stay home than vote for half a loaf of bread,” says Bill Stephens, the executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida. “They either want the whole loaf, or they’ll wait for next time.”

Others, like the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, are raising the possibility of a third party candidate.

As a result, the Republican candidates are falling all over themselves to prove how pro-life and anti-gay they are. Mitt Romney changed almost every position he ever had. John McCain discovered he was really a Baptist. Even Rudy Giuliani begs religious conservatives not to “fear” him, and seeks out Pat Robertson’s endorsement.

There is no doubt that religious conservatives are an important part of the Republican coalition. Yet the media, and more importantly, the candidates, seem curiously unconcerned with another discontented part of that coalition: economic, small-government conservatives.

Yet it was the Republicans’ big-spending, big-government ways that helped ensure their defeat in the 2006 midterm elections. It wasn’t evangelical Christians or so-called “values voters” who deserted Republicans. Roughly 70 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians voted Republican in 2006, just a fraction less than in 2004.

It was suburbanites, independents, and others who were fed up not just with the war and corruption, but also with the Republican drift toward big-government who stayed home, or even voted Democratic, on election day 2006. That night, more than 65 percent of voters told a pollster they believed that “The Republicans used to be the party of economic growth, fiscal discipline, and limited government, but in recent years, too many Republicans in Washington have become just like the big spenders they used to oppose.”

So far, the Republican presidential candidates have offered little to … small-government conservatives.”

So far, the Republican presidential candidates have offered little to these small-government conservatives. Fred Thompson gives an occasional nod to entitlement reform. John McCain has been critical of pork barrel spending. Ron Paul opposes pretty much all government programs. But by and large, the candidates have not offered a platform for curtailing the size, cost, and power of government.

Can anyone think of a single major government program that any of them, with the exception of Rep. Paul, have called for significantly cutting or eliminating?

Perhaps, that’s because most of them are really big-government supporters at heart. Just look at the two candidates who have tried hardest to appeal to the religious right. Mitt Romney imposed a Hillary Clinton-style health care plan in Massachusetts, and he believes the federal government should buy a laptop computer for every school child in America. He wants to increase farm price supports.

In the Cato Institute’s biannual ranking of governors on fiscal issues, Romney received a grade of only “C.” The report noted that his proposed 2006 budget included some $170 million in increased business taxes. This increase came on top of previous business tax increases of $140 million during his term, as well as some $500 million in increased fees and other forms or revenue.

His philosophy of governance is betrayed in his comment, “I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t always ask for federal money whenever I got the chance.”

Mike Huckabee? As governor, he never saw a tax increase he didn’t love. He presided over a massive increase in state spending, including an expansion of Medicaid, and approved increases in the sales, income, and cigarette taxes. On its annual governor’s report card, Cato gave him an “F” for fiscal policy. Most Democratic governors received higher grades.

As a presidential candidate, Huckabee has been no better. Not only has he failed to call for spending cuts, he actually wants to increase spending on a variety of programs, from education to infrastructure. He even wants the federal government to fund art and music programs in the nation’s schools.

If that is the record Republicans plan to run on in 2008, then 2006 was only a taste of things to come.

Republican strategists like to talk of the party as a three-legged stool, made up of social, military, and economic conservatives. Perhaps. But so far, believers in limited government and economic conservatism have been left out of this conversation. They might not have the media megaphone of religious conservatives, but if Republicans want them to show up at the polls in November 2008, they had better start talking to them today.

Michael Tanner is director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right.