Following the landslide victories that Republicans achieved in the November 2010 elections, a number of implausible explanations have arisen regarding what the American public wants. Liberals are gamely pressing the absurd narrative that Democrats lost because they were not liberal enough. Likewise, many on the right (including Tea Party activists) are claiming that the elections were a vindication of hardcore small-government libertarianism. Neither theory has any empirical support.
For instance, exit polling indicates that by a margin of 39 to 52 percent, voters in November opposed extending all of the Bush tax cuts. “Cutting taxes” was listed as the highest priority for the new Congress by a meager 18% of voters, far behind “spending to create new jobs” at 37%. Among voters in 2010, 47% favored either expanding ObamaCare or leaving it as is, nearly the same number (48%) who wanted to repeal ObamaCare. Nearly as many people (17%) indicated that their vote was intended as a message “against the Tea Party” as those who indicated (22%) that their vote was intended as a message “in favor of the Tea Party.” Proposals to cut and/or privatize Social Security and Medicare benefits are still opposed by more than 50% of the population.
In light of these results, it would be a mistake to assume that voters sent Republicans to Washington with a mandate to eliminate the Department of Education and to slash Medicare.
The one thing that the polls do consistently show is that the voters have a crisis of confidence in America. Although polling on this question is somewhat inconsistent (most likely due to variations in the way the question was phrased), the one thing that seems clear is that in the period between at least 1998 and 2005, Americans remained remarkably optimistic about the direction of the country, seldom registering an aggregate level of over 60% dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. Most polls during this period showed less than 50% dissatisfaction, and many showed less than 40%. However, beginning in late 2006 and continuing through to the present (with a slight dip after Obama’s election), the American public, when reflecting upon the future of the country, has exhibited a sustained pessimism that has seldom been seen before.
Over the years, conservative pundits have expended quite a lot of energy trying to determine the precise reasons for Reagan’s electoral success in 1980. It’s true that Reagan’s thinking about marginal income tax rates, foreign policy, and social issues would shape the electoral landscape for years to come, but the simplest way to explain why Reagan won in 1980 is that he was able to convince a country beset by news stories of inevitable Soviet dominance and our inability to confront tin-pot Iranian Mullahs that America could be great again—that we were and could still be that shining city on the hill, and that we did not have to accept the inevitability of being a second-class country in the world.
The crisis of confidence that America now faces in many ways mirrors the crisis of the late ’70s. Liberal blogger and professional America-hater Glenn Greenwald has gleefully chronicled over the last two years the reasons that Americans have to doubt the country’s current and future greatness. Unemployment remains stubbornly stuck at levels previously unseen in this generation. Our President seems determined to bow, scrape, and apologize to every lesser head of State in the entire world.
If Republicans are going to defeat Obama in 2012, we must realize that what the American people most hunger for now is not reformation of the tax code: It is a belief in the long-term viability of the country they love. The American people do not need an academic debate about the costs and benefits of the VAT; they need a leader who will inspire their dormant love for their country.
Proof of this can be seen in the respective fates of Tea Party-favored candidates. Many doctrinaire conservatives failed to meet expectations at the polls on Election Day; an exception to that trend was Florida’s Marco Rubio, who came out of nowhere to defeat a well-funded GOP primary opponent and to cruise to victory in the general election. The reason for this is simple enough to understand: Rubio did address the issues of ObamaCare and out-of-control spending, but his campaign from the beginning cast his fight as a referendum on the greatness of America.
Time after time on the stump, Rubio told anyone who would listen, with clear conviction, of his belief that “it isn’t like this anywhere else” and “I was privileged to be born a citizen of a place unlike any other in human history.” In an uplifting and optimistic final campaign ad, Rubio said almost nothing about the issues but rather instead implored Florida voters to share his belief about America’s greatness as a country. And on Election Day, voters delivered Rubio an overwhelming victory in an important swing state.
When Republican voters go to the polls to choose our nominee for President, I expect that many will base their consideration on the candidates’ position on one issue or another. However, when voters go to the polls in the general election in November, somewhere near the front of their mind will be the persistent nagging doubts about the long-term future of this country. And our hopes of retaking the White House are best if our nominee can make voters believe, as Reagan did, that America’s best days are not behind her, that as Americans we don’t have to accept as inevitable a future in which our country is mediocre and impotent.