Do you remember in the days leading up to the Republican electoral victory in 2010, how the Tea Party marched on Washington with signs saying “Birth Control Is Bad”?
Neither do I.
Less than a year and a half after Republicans swept to the biggest midterm congressional landslide since Grover Cleveland’s second term, they are struggling against a president presiding over a struggling economy, rising gas prices, and an approval rating in the low 40s. Prospects for a Senate takeover, once a foregone conclusion, are now are tenuous. Even the newly won House majority is in jeopardy.
What has changed?
Some may blame this on a nasty primary between three of the least inspiring presidential candidates since Bob Dole. But the current GOP seems to have lost any semblance of a coherent message.
The 2010 Republican victories, and the tea-party movement that drove them, were based on a few critical issues: the crushing burden of our national debt; opposition to wasteful government spending, including bailouts and the stimulus; and a desire for limited constitutional government. It stood in opposition to the big-government nostrums of both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
These were issues that had broad support, not just from the Republican base, but from independents as well, including crucial suburban moderates. But Republicans have spent the last several months ignoring these issues.
Take Obamacare, for example. A new study by scholars at the University of Denver suggests that the health-care law cost Democrats as many as 25 seats in 2010. On average, Democrats who voted for the health-care law ran six percentage points behind those who didn’t. And Obamacare is as unpopular as ever, with polls showing that large majorities favor its repeal. Yet Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has announced that he will not bring any repeal efforts to the floor until after the election.
Republicans appear to be abandoning other winning issues as well. They so mishandled the debate over the payroll-tax cut last December that they ended up agreeing to a compromise that added billions to the national debt. And speaking of debt, the Republican leadership is trying to push through a transportation bill that would add still more debt. Meanwhile, House Republicans are reportedly split over whether their new budget should include spending cuts that go beyond last year’s debt-ceiling agreement. That agreement would allow the national debt to increase by more than $7 trillion over next ten years, and Republicans can’t decide whether spending should be cut further?
Polls consistently show that the issues of most concern to voters are the economy and government debt. For example, a USA Today/Gallup poll last month showed that 92 percent of voters thought that the economy was important to how they voted, while 82 percent were interested in jobs. More than 70 percent agreed that taxes and Obamacare were critical issues. But only 38 percent thought social issues such as abortion or gay marriage were important in this election. Even among Republicans, fewer than half were motivated by social issues. It does make one wonder how many voters really care whether Bill Maher is a bigger misogynist than Rush Limbaugh.
This election should present a clear contrast. President Obama and his congressional supporters stand for a bigger, costly, and more intrusive government, financed by higher and higher taxes — all this, despite the fact that American voters clearly favor smaller, less expensive, and less intrusive government. In fact, according to a Rasmussen poll released this week, by a 52–36 margin, likely voters thought government would do too much rather than to little in fixing the problems we face today. Similarly, a January Gallup poll found only 29 percent of voters were satisfied with the current size of government.
This should provide Republicans with plenty of ammunition. But so far they are misfiring.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.