Perhaps I'm suffering from the pundit's fallacy, but I think libertarians and limited government advocates can take heart in Tuesday's election results. Here's why:
The number one issue most voters cited in exit polling Tuesday was terrorism. Half of those voters gave their votes to the Democrats, showing that even in what was thought to be the GOP's strongest issue, President Bush's expansionist, civil-liberties-be-damned approach to locking up the evildoers isn't the sure thing the Republicans thought it was.
From there, Tuesday by most indications was a rejection of big government conservatism, not 1994-style limited government conservatism. The second issue most important to voters, for example, was corruption. The third was Iraq. Voters who cited each voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats. Nowhere in exit polling did voters say they were throwing the bums out because they spent too little, refused to raise the minimum wage, or because voters were clamoring for more regulation of business, or socialized health care.
Corruption is the result of a federal government too flush with money and too fat with influence. When billions of dollars are at stake—either in the form of handouts and corporate welfare, or from the effects of regulation—it only makes sense that corporations and special interests would spend millions to secure a spot at the trough, or to tweak regulations to their liking. The more influence wielded in Washington, the further corrupting forces will go to win a share of it.
Pelosi and company (along with most of the country's editorial boards) believe you can continue to grow government while reducing corruption—you just need lots of McCain-Feingold-ish laws, ethics panels, and blue-ribbon "good government" commissions to keep greed and graft in check. That flies in the face of common sense, human nature, and anyone who has paid a lick of attention to politics over the last 50 years. Money always finds way to by influence where influence is available. You reduce corruption by taking money and power off the table and putting it back in the private sector, where it's won through innovation and competition, not through golfing trips to Scotland and lunches at The Palm.
As for spending, the National Taxpayers Union points out that the incumbent Republicans defeated this week were hardly budget hawks. Just two of the 19 Republicans now confirmed to have been ousted Tuesday earned NTU's "Friend of the Taxpayer" status. The rest compiled an NTU rating well behind that of the overall GOP caucus.
Further, as several pundits have noted this week, DCCC Chairman Rahm Emannuel consciously recruited conservative, "blue dog" Democrats to challenge vulnerable Republicans in winnable districts. And they won. You could make a good argument that voters opted for a more fiscally responsible Congress this week, not less.
Mike Pence (R-IN) and John Shadegg (R-AZ) seem to get it. The two rock-ribbed conservatives wasted no time in laying out a vision for the Republican party in line with 1994's Contract with America. Republicans "voted to expand the federal government's role in education by nearly 100% and created the largest new entitlement in 40 years," Pence wrote in a letter to his GOP colleagues announcing his candidacy for minority leader. "We also pursued domestic spending policies that created record deficits, national debt and earmark spending that has embarrassed us and caused many Americans to question our commitment to fiscal responsibility."
Shadegg, running for whip, echoed Pence's theme. "Last night's election was NOT a revolution, nor was it an endorsement of a true or real Democrat alternative," he writes. "It was a rebuke of the way Washington has conducted itself as of late. This past year, we were presented with many opportunities to act decisively, but instead we wavered in our responsibilities."
President Bush, on the other hand, clearly doesn't get it. At his press conference Wednesday, Bush announced that he was willing to negotiate on raising the minimum wage, that he would "work with the Democrats on entitlements," and seemed generally amenable to quite a bit of Nancy Pelosi's game plan. He promised that he'd work to avoid gridlock, keeping with the Beltway commentariat's (mis)reading of the polls.
Of course, this is the conundrum traditional conservatives and libertarians face when the allegedly limited government party abandons its principles. It leaves as the remaining option a party that has no allegiance to limited government at all. Libertarians and bona-fide conservatives stayed home or voted for Democrats to remind Republicans that if they betray their principles, they'll lose the privileges of power. That's why, for example, a bevy of credentialed conservatives penned essays in the recent Washington Monthly calling for the GOP's defeat. They're hoping the party that rose to power promising to eliminate entire cabinet agencies—but ended up giving us an extra one—will do some soul searching while it ticks off the next two years from the back bench.
Of course, as we've been told, President Bush – who to be fair has never professed a Gingrich-era distaste for big government—doesn't read magazines like the Washington Monthly. And so it now seems clear that he's interpreting Tuesday's returns as a sign that the GOP hasn't spent and regulated enough, that they haven't grown government enough, and that to appease the voters, they should act a little more like Democrats.
You don't promise to "work with Democrats on entitlements," as he said he'd do at his press conference, with an eye toward eliminating or reducing them. "I'm willing to work with Democrats on entitlements" means you'll be negotiating only the rate at which they'll grow and multiply. Finding "common ground" on the minimum wage with "compensation for small businesses," as Bush promised, means further distortion of the labor market, made worse by corporate welfare expenditures.
Of course, there's a lot about guys like Mike Pence on John Shadegg not to like. Their "leave us alone" approach to tax and spend issues, for example, doesn't extend to the private lives and personal habits of individual Americans. It's tough to see them being of much help in keeping the encroaching Nanny State at bay. But they're a far better face for the GOP than the White House. They at least present an option that offers some separation from the mushy Republicrat-ish concoction the two parties have become since 2000. There is no party of limited government right now, only two parties who fight over which special interests will benefit from big government.
It appears that over the next few months, the neo-1994 crowd will do battle with the conciliation advocates in the White House for control of the Republican Party. The Pence-Shadegg faction versus the Boehner-Blunt establishment. Here's hoping Pence and Shadegg win handily.
The Republicans didn't lose on Tuesday night because they haven't been governing enough like Democrats. They lost because they've been governing exactly like Democrats.