When Americans voted to put Democrats in power Tuesday, they did not reject conservatism but the Republican establishment and its big-spending habit.
"It [the election] was not a repudiation of conservative ideas or values," said Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, a PAC that backs fiscal conservatives for Congress. "It was a rejection of the Republican Party, in part, we believe, for having failed to commit itself to the conservative ideas that are at the core of the coalition that elected Republicans."
While Toomey acknowledged that the Iraq war, coupled with President Bush’s low approval ratings and six-year run of full Republican power contributed to the devastating loss, he said the biggest problem was the GOP’s abandonment of the core principle of conservativism: the idea of limited government.
Toomey said it’s this principle that unifies the Republican coalition — fiscal conservatives, the libertarians, social conservatives and foreign policy and defense hawks — because it’s where they all find common ground.
"When Republicans abandon that central idea, it shouldn’t be surprising that they demoralize their own base and they drive Independents and swing Democrats away," Toomey said.
The Club for Growth’s internal polls leading up to the election showed public disgust with the bloated size of government, sending many voters over the edge to vote for Democrats. They see Republicans as the party of big government and are upset that GOP leaders didn’t enact the fiscal discipline many in office originally stood for.
Americans’ willingness to support fiscal conservatives over establishment spenders is evident in the success of the Club for Growth’s candidates this election cycle, five of whom are incoming freshmen headed straight for the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the largest conservative caucus in Congress.
Similarly, Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.), one of the few true fiscal hawks in Congress, told bloggers on a conference call Wednesday that it wasn’t all the scandals and unhappiness with the war that brought the GOP down.
"Earmarking really came back to bite us. I think we Republicans simply lost our brand name," he said. "We are no longer considered to be the party of limited government and that came back to hurt us badly."
Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.), who has shamed many of his congressional colleagues for pointing out their pork-barrel spending sprees, said the results should be interpreted as a "total failure of big government conservatism."
Illustrating his point, Coburn said, "Republicans oversaw a seven-fold increase in pork projects since 1998. Republicans increased domestic spending by nearly 50% since 2001, increased the national debt to $9 trillion, passed a reckless Medicare expansion bill and neglected our oversight responsibilities.
"While some of these decisions may have helped secure specific seats in the short-term the totality of our excess did not secure our majority, but destroy it."
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, budget and spending taskforce chairman of the RSC, said he thinks the loss in Congress will draw Republicans back to their conservative roots, given that their excessive pork projects didn’t get them very far.
"Instead, over the last several years, Republicans have experimented with big government, and we have now seen the result," Hensarling said. "The Bridge to Nowhere has led us here. The era of Republican big government is over."