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General dissatisfaction

Posted by Richard on November 15, 2007

A new Gallup opinion poll found that Americans are feeling "distinctly negative" toward congressional Democrats — as negative as they were about the Republican Congress just before the 2006 elections. In six of seven major issues (the economy, government reform, health care, Iraq, immigration, and the budget deficit), a clear majority (53-68%) said they were disappointed or angry. Only on Democrats' handling of terrorism did a majority (52%) say they were pleased or neutral.

It's actually worse for Democrats than those numbers suggest. Although Gallup lumps the responses into two categories — Pleased and Neutral on one side, Disappointed and Angry on the other — that's quite misleading, because Disappointed doesn't counterbalance Neutral, it counterbalances Pleased.

Gallup's rating scale has two negative responses and only one positive response. Neutral is neither. A more fair scale would consist of Enthusiastic, Pleased, Neutral, Disappointed, and Angry. Maybe they tried that, but the number of Enthusiastic responses was statistically insignificant. 🙂 

On all seven issues, the clearly negative responses (Disappointed and Angry) far outweigh the clearly positive (Pleased). The margin ranges from about 3:1 (47% – 17%) to almost 10:1 (68% – 7%). 

Mark Tapscott warned Republicans not to gloat about the Democrats' "abysmal failure." He thinks these numbers reflect a wider and deeper problem, one for which the Republicans, too, bear responsibility (emphasis added):

We have created a federal Leviathan that promises to deliver something for everybody, with its regulations and taxation directing virtually every corner of daily life. There is no way any government can do that, so failures are inevitable. But over a period of time, as the failures in particular arenas multiply, there comes a point when the many specific failures merge into one general mood of dissatisfaction.

Within the next decade, as the seriousness of the entitlement crisis becomes more evident, it is likely that the general dissatisfaction with government that promises everything and delivers nothing but higher taxes, more waste and policy paralysis is going to grow more intense and deeper rooted.

This widespread dissatisfaction with the inability of Big Government to deliver on its promises presents conservatives with an historic opportunity to refocus public debate to redefine what is expected of government, to slim it down to more manageable proportions so that it can deliver on the most important things.

In short, the coming decade could be the greatest opportunity this generation is likely to see to make the case for a rejuvenated federalism of limited government. We simply have to find new ways to speak the timeless message of Ronald Reagan's first inaugural:

"It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.

"Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it."

There is one more lesson of importance here for conservatives and it is one that ought to give us heart. When your political power depends, as it does for our liberal friends, on promising more and more, but doing so assures that you will be able to actually deliver less and less, you sow the seeds of your own downfall.

I think Tapscott might be right about the rising dissatisfaction and liberals' downfall, but not necessarily. After all, liberal politicians have been promising to solve a multitude of problems with government programs for many decades now. On how many of those promises have they delivered? Yet their supporters have generally ignored all those failures because their intentions were good.

The outcome Tapscott envisions will only come about if those who ostensibly desire that outcome do a much better job of "redefin[ing] what is expected of government" and "mak[ing] the case for … limited government" than they've done in the past — better even than Reagan did (or maybe just sustained more consistently over a longer period of time).

To do that, they'll have to make the moral case as well as the practical, they'll have to stop being defensive, apologetic, and half-hearted about the principles they claim to embrace, and they'll have to stop tolerating hypocrisy, cynical pragmatism, and corruption on their side.

The behavior of the Republican leadership over the past few years suggests they're far from up to the task.  

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