Left-liberal groups are quick to declare Barack Obama’s win a broad endorsement of the “progressive” agenda, their highly inaccurate name for more taxes, more spending, more entitlements, and more regulation. After a trillion-dollar increase in federal spending during the Bush administration and the biggest expansion of entitlements since Lyndon Johnson, it hardly seems likely that what’s troubling the American economy or the American people is an insufficiency of government.
The big problem for John McCain and the rest of the Republicans last night was George W. Bush and his big-government conservatism. Bush had a 25 percent approval rating, and Congress’s was even lower. Republicans hoped up until election day that voters would notice that the unpopular Congress was run by Democrats. But after 8 years of Bush and 12 years of a Republican Congress, just recently ended, voters saw the Republicans as the incumbents who were responsible for the mess in Washington. Concerns about Obama were sufficient to allow McCain to run 20 points ahead of Bush’s approval rating in a time of economic crisis. But the hole was too deep.
Bush and the Republicans promised choice, freedom, reform, and a restrained federal government. They delivered massive overspending, the biggest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, centralization of education, a floundering war, an imperial presidency, civil liberties abuses, the intrusion of the federal government into social issues and personal freedoms, and finally a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street that just kept on growing in the last month of the campaign. Voters who believed in limited government had every reason to reject that record.
Commentators who talk about whether the Republican party moved too far to the right, or too far to the center, miss the point. There are different kinds of “right.” See this New York Times graphic on independent voters, which picks up on some of the themes we’ve talked about in our work on libertarian voters. Lots of independents – as well as voters who identify with one of the major parties – hold broadly libertarian, or “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” views. A lot of those voters moved from voting Republican to voting Democratic between 2000 and 2006, and it looks like they did so again this year.
As we had predicted, Republicans racked up further losses in the most libertarian parts of the country, such as New Hampshire and the Mountain West. Obama won affluent, educated voters and professionals. And if conservative Republicans continue to respond to the loss of educated voters by declaring themselves proud to be “real Americans” who don’t care much for book learning and Darwinism and elite stuff, they will only accelerate the process.
Big-government conservatism, a toxic combination of the religious right and the neoconservatives, lost badly on Tuesday. But the voters didn’t give a ringing endorsement to big-government liberalism. Fifty-nine percent of voters call themselves “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” and that’s a rich vein the Republican party is ignoring. If Obama governs as a centrist, he may make it very difficult for the Republicans to recover. But a candidate in either party who presented himself as a product of the social freedom of the Sixties and the economic freedom of the Eighties would be tapping into a market that both parties have yet to nail down.