Americans don’t want their government in here.
New polling data from CNN/SSRS was released on Thursday that made headlines largely because it showed significant vulnerabilities for President Biden, including a topline finding that Biden and former President Donald Trump are running neck-and-neck in a hypothetical 2024 rematch. Analysis from ABC News, for example, exclaimed that CNN’s new polling was “nothing but bad news” for Biden.
Yet while Biden’s approval ratings aren’t very good and voters aren’t enthusiastic about the impact of White House policies on improving the economy, there was a significant and largely overlooked piece of data included in the CNN/SSRS polling results that should make Democrats feel a little better: For the first time in modern memory, a plurality of Americans believe that the government should do MORE to solve the country’s problems.
Via CNN/SSRS (Aug. 2023)
As you can see from the comparisons below, for decades Americans have tended to agree with the idea that the government is too big and too burdensome and that the free market fairy will always make things right. As conservative activist Grover Norquist infamously said in 2001:
“I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Via CNN/SSRS (Aug. 2023)
In 1985, Norquist founded “Americans for Tax Reform,” an organization that opposed all tax increases “as a matter of principle” and was a vocal advocate for Colorado’s “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights” (TABOR) in 1992. As even Republicans will tell you today, TABOR has been awful for Colorado because it places artificial spending restrictions on a state that has been growing in population since it was first passed more than 30 years ago; it’s no accident that no other state in the country has ever wanted to replicate TABOR.
For decades, “Americans for Tax Reform” played an outside role in conservative politics by serving as a litmus test for any Republican candidate seeking elected office. Failure to sign the ATR “no taxes” pledge could be a campaign killer. But as Paul Krugman wrote for The New York Times in 2010, the “starve the beast” Republican strategy came with one YUGE problem: Nobody really wanted to cut programs that Americans had come to rely upon:
But there has always been a political problem with this agenda. Voters may say that they oppose big government, but the programs that actually dominate federal spending – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — are very popular. So how can the public be persuaded to accept large spending cuts?
The conservative answer, which evolved in the late 1970s, would be dubbed “starving the beast” during the Reagan years. The idea — propounded by many members of the conservative intelligentsia, from Alan Greenspan to Irving Kristol — was basically that sympathetic politicians should engage in a game of bait and switch. Rather than proposing unpopular spending cuts, Republicans would push through popular tax cuts, with the deliberate intention of worsening the government’s fiscal position. Spending cuts could then be sold as a necessity rather than a choice, the only way to eliminate an unsustainable budget deficit…
…Why are Republicans reluctant to sit down and talk? Because they would then be forced to put up or shut up. Since they’re adamantly opposed to reducing the deficit with tax increases, they would have to explain what spending they want to cut. And guess what? After three decades of preparing the ground for this moment, they’re still not willing to do that. [Pols emphasis]
Rep. Ken Buck recognizes the problem.
Not much has changed in the 13 years since Krugman wrote that opinion piece. Republicans still want to cut spending…but they don’t want to talk about how that might work. Colorado Republican Rep. Ken Buck said last month that a federal government shutdown — perhaps as soon as the end of this month — was all but inevitable. “We are going to shut down,” he told the crowd at a Colorado Chamber of Commerce luncheon, claiming that the federal government simply must cut spending in order to avoid some sort of nebulous debt/deficit problem that is often predicted but never realized.
The only serious way to reduce spending is to propose meaningful cuts to military spending, medicaid, medicare, or social security, but Republicans aren’t going to do that because voters would revolt and throw them out of office. Earlier this year, Buck suggested raising the retirement age to 72, which would require Americans to work longer than people in any other industrialized nation. Buck hasn’t really said much about that idea since floating it during a Fox 31 interview in May.
But it’s not just these long-running entitlement programs that voters seem to like. As The Washington Post reported this week, $24 billion in stimulus funding that helped make child care possible for millions of parents is about to run dry:
That record investment has helped keep the industry afloat by propping up workers’ salaries, boosting training programs and waiving family payment requirements.
Now, with the last of that money expiring this month, an estimated 70,000 child-care programs — or about 1 in 3 — could close as a result of lost funding, causing 3.2 million children to lose care, according to a study by the Century Foundation, a liberal think tank. That translates to $10.6 billion in lost U.S. economic activity, researchers found, adding new strain to a nation already struggling with a profound lack of child care.
“It isn’t just individual children or parents that will be impacted, it’s the economy as a whole,” said Julie Kashen, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “When more than 3 million children lose care, that means all of those parents are going to have to figure out something else or reduce their work hours or leave their jobs altogether.” [Pols emphasis]
It’s hard to understate the significance of the philosophical change that Republicans will need to confront if Americans continue to express the belief that we should have MORE government instead of less. Buck is a perfect example of that: He votes against just about every spending bill — sometimes one of just a handful of Republicans to oppose things like raising the debt ceiling — based solely on his robotic devotion to the old “starve the beast” ethos. This is his entire political identity.
A new generation of Americans sees what governments CAN do for people in other countries, and they’re no longer buying into the message long shouted from the mountaintops by rich white men. If support for a more active government continues to rise, Republicans are going to need to toss out the old “smaller government, lower taxes” routine or just cede the entire argument to Democrats.