February 11, 2011


The Road to (and from) the 2010 Elections: What happened to the president and his party? (David Brady; Morris P. Fiorina; and Douglas Rivers, Policy Review)

What does the Republican “shellacking” of Democrats in 2010 portend for 2012? If history is any guide, the answer is not good news for Republicans, at least for the post-World War II period. In 1946, the Republicans gained 55 seats in the house and 12 in the Senate to take control of Congress for the first time in 16 years. Democratic prospects for 1948 looked so poor that Senator Fulbright, a Democrat, proposed that President Truman appoint a Republican secretary of state (next in line for the presidency after Truman’s elevation), resign, and cede the presidency to the Republicans. Contrary to expectations, Truman campaigned against the “do-nothing” Republican Congress and won reelection. A generation later, after the 1994 elections gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, some in the media wondered whether a weakened President Clinton was still relevant. But after two government shutdowns Clinton was reelected overwhelmingly in 1996. The key to understanding how these two new Republican Congresses managed to reelect sitting Democratic presidents lies in the policy choices they made. In the flush of a big victory they overreached.

In the 112th Congress, a key issue will be government spending. The one common principle across all the Tea Party movements in states and localities was that the country cannot afford our current deficits, let alone those looming in the not too distant future. Addressing the deficit problem involves raising taxes, cutting spending, or some combination of the two. Thus far, Republicans have been insistent on cutting spending while keeping the Bush tax cuts in place and enacting no new taxes. In principle, very strong economic growth could increase incomes sufficiently to increase revenue without increasing the tax rate; however, few expect the economy to do this in the near future. Given that the next election will occur before economic growth can solve the problem, the key issue for Republicans is reducing government spending.

While the electorate in 2010 yelled a loud “no” to the policies of the president and Democratic Congress, the negative verdict was by no means carte blanche for Republicans to carry out their own wish list. Given the centrality of spending issues, we conducted a YouGov/Polimetrix poll on sixteen federal programs, asking whether spending on each should be increased, decreased, or kept the same. Table 3 presents the results of this poll.

In fifteen out of sixteen programs, a majority of the public would like spending to be increased or kept the same. The only program that a majority of Americans would cut is foreign aid. Most importantly, in the large entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, only small minorities favor the cuts that must come if the budget deficit is to be brought under control. Defense enjoys a similarly privileged status, with 70 percent favoring either current spending or an increase. Even in agriculture and housing, over 60 percent of Americans favor keeping expenditures where they are or increasing them.

Data like these should inform the agenda of the new Republican House majority. In 2010 the country voted no on Democrats, not yes on Republicans, and certainly not yes to across-the-board spending cuts. The new majority faces the hard reality that, in general, voters want spending reduced, but when it comes to specific programs, there are none that stand out, save foreign aid, which, if eliminated entirely, would not dent the deficit of the United States.

....particularly since a freeze is a cut.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 11, 2011 6:50 AM
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