Give The Voters What They Wanted: Smaller Government

This essay originally appeared in the New York Post.
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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 ofactivist government. Instead, it should seek to express the popular will toreduce government. Bush's emphasis on cutting taxes (in his address justafter Florida's certification) was a good first step.

Throughout the campaign, 60 percent of voters thought that Bush's policyprescriptions were either "about right" or, amazingly, "too liberal,"suggesting considerable comfort with a limited government stance. In anOctober CNN/Time poll, for example, a majority believed Bush shared theirpersonal view on the appropriate size of government.

Similarly, 62 percent of respondents told a mid-October Wall StreetJournal/NBC News poll that individuals and businesses should take moreresponsibility for solving America's problems; only 23 percent saidgovernment should take more responsibility.

As The New York Times reported just after Election Day, "Mr. Bush's argumentthat government's role in public life needed to be reduced clearlyresonated. That philosophy of restricting government was shared . . . bymany voters."

What about the claim that the electorate embraces small-government rhetoricbut prefers big government when it comes to specific programs? Again, thedata 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 sharplydifferent approaches. But voters' No. 2 choice was "cut taxes" - ahead evenof strengthening Social Security. And tax-cutting easily beat out (by afive-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; just6 percent wanted higher funding for social programs other than SocialSecurity.

Al Gore's "politics of envy" campaign clearly failed. When exit polls askedabout tax plans, a majority chose a larger, across-the-board tax cut ratherthan a smaller tax cut targeted to lower- and middle-income people. And apoll in late October by The Washington Post and Harvard University foundthat 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 Americanshelped his quest for the White House. An early September CNN/Time poll, forexample, found 53 percent in favor of a plan in which individuals couldinvest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market, with 39percent 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 smallergovernment. It opposes more government health programs, new social spendingand policies that are "too liberal." That helps explain why a late OctoberCNN/Time poll found a majority agreeing that Bush "would bring neededchange" to Washington. With popular sentiment on the side of limitedgovernment, the policy direction of a Bush administration should be clear.

Patrick Basham

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