Commentary Magazine


On Big Government, the Conservative Message Gets Through

Although there has been some heated digital confrontation between conservatives in the post-election blame game and adjustment period, it should be noted that much of the right’s recalibration since November has been quite sensible. The GOP by and large has had it wrong on immigration in recent years, and paid dearly for it at the ballot box. The sudden willingness to work toward comprehensive immigration reform may in some cases be cynical, but it is also, at the very least, logical.

And President Obama’s reelection victory exposed party weaknesses outside legislative issues, such as poor candidate recruitment and messaging. So it’s not all that surprising that a group like the one led by Karl Rove has formed with the purpose of enabling the nomination of better candidates for certain races. This has, naturally, whetted the appetite of liberals for ever more “moderation” on the part of Republicans. E.J. Dionne’s column today in the Washington Post is a good example of this mindset. Dionne writes:

But there’s a big difference between rebranding and pursuing a different approach to governing.

The good news is that some Republicans have decided that the party moved too far to the right and are backing off long-standing positions on tax increases, guns and immigration….

The mixed news: A lot of the rebranding efforts are superficial yet nonetheless reflect an awareness that the party has been asking the wrong questions, talking about the wrong issues and limiting the range of voters it’s been addressing….

The bad news: In some states where Republicans control all the levers of power, they are rushing ahead with astonishingly right-wing programs to eviscerate government while shifting the tax burden toward the middle class and the poor and away from the wealthy. In trying to build the Koch brothers’ dystopias, they are turning states in (sic) laboratories of reaction.

That is, from Dionne’s perspective, the good news is that some Republicans are voting like Democrats, the mixed news is that some Republicans are merely talking like Democrats, and the bad news is that some Republicans still refuse to do either, preferring instead to live in places where government works for the people–like Texas–instead of where government works against the people–like failing states such as California.

In fairness to Dionne, he’s not wrong that Republicans have changed their tune on some issues and their tone on others, nor is there reason for him not to applaud it. But Republicans agreed to raise taxes in the fiscal cliff negotiations because without a deal taxes would have gone up even more. Aside from increased support for background checks, there isn’t much change in anyone’s position on guns–pro-gun rights Democrats haven’t really moved left either, which is why an assault weapons ban is unlikely.

And Dionne’s frustration–and that of his liberal compatriots–with conservatives’ relentless criticism of the federal government as too intrusive, expensive, and unwieldy won’t be placated by the GOP anytime soon. That’s because of what Dionne’s Post colleague Aaron Blake reported last week: for the first time in at least a couple of decades, the Pew polling organization has found that a majority of Americans–53 percent–believe the government threatens their rights and freedoms.

Blake’s post puts this poll in the context of gun rights, which makes sense given the attention the issue was receiving when this poll was conducted. But there’s every indication that this is one messaging success for the right that has wider implications. Blake writes:

And if gun rights supporters can convince the public (and members of Congress) that the legislation creates a too-powerful federal government that impinges on people’s rights and freedoms, they may help reverse their early deficit in the polls.

The American public is very receptive to such a message.

True, but why presume the American public wouldn’t be “very receptive” to the message in other contexts? After all, it’s highly unlikely that the government’s behavior on any one issue drove this result–and in fact, as the poll breakdown makes clear, gun owners didn’t skew the results. The truth is, there is a bevy of Obama infringements on personal liberty to choose from, such as the one that Jonathan wrote about this afternoon: the controversial HHS mandate that has drawn the opposition of the Catholic Church. We can add in the Obamacare mandate to purchase insurance as well. Some might be upset with the administration’s heavy-handed approach to picking winners and losers in the private sector; burdensome regulation; desire to raise and keep raising taxes; or expansive executive authority on national security issues.

Or they could simply believe that this administration’s dedication to expanding the federal deficit is a threat to their economic wellbeing and that of future generations. This is a difficult question to answer, because there are just so many possibilities. When it comes to intruding on the freedoms of the American people, this administration has something for everyone.

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