Opinion: Columnists

Twenty-first century limited

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Forty-seven percent of the vote is what Mitt Romney garnered against Barack Obama, who won a solid but not overimpressive 50.9 percent of the vote in his re-election as president. Forty-seven percent is also the share of the population whom Romney described as dependent on handouts, and thus lost to his party.

In exit polling, Romney lost big on the fourth question -- "Cares about people" -- by 81 to 18 percent. These are the numbers that have stunned and astonished movement conservatives. They still can't believe that, against a big spender and expander of government, their message of limited government didn't hold sway.

They didn't just lose, they have lost their illusions, and this should wake them up to unpleasant realities that they have resisted thus far. Limited government has its appeal, but it is not a cause to most people. Conservative activists think it should sell on its own, but it doesn't. In the 21st century, the "limits to government" theme is facing its own limitations. This is a shock, and it will require some adjustments, but it is not quite the end of the world.

To begin, let us recall that the small-government mantra -- when it runs as a stand-alone issue -- has never played well for too long. It was what Barry Goldwater ran on when he won seven states (six of them for all the wrong reasons) in the 1964 shipwreck, when voters, given the choice of "a choice, not an echo," chose then to show him the door. His was the one-note note whistle that Ronald Reagan turned into an orchestra, adding to it the hawks and the social conservatives, and forming therein a governing vision that led him to two landslide wins. In 1994 (and 2010) the small-government corps scored stunning congressional victories, but they failed to prevail in the presidential elections that followed, and had become so unloved by the 2000 election that George W. Bush had to run as "a new kind of conservative" to squeak through to a marginal win.

After the panic of 2008, conservatives turned their backs on compassion and freedom-promotion in favor of programs of government shrinkage, while brooding aloud on the sins of Progressives, making Silent Cal Coolidge their favorite president, and pining at length for the late 19th century, before the Roosevelts ruined it all. Somehow, hard-pressed working people failed to find this enthralling. Conservatives should ask themselves why.

They should remind themselves too that the Reagan-Kemp message was one of limited government, plus national greatness and upward mobility; that Reagan himself was an FDR voter; and that the one Republican since the end of the Cold War to be elected president twice was the deeply maligned "compassionate conservative," who won votes from the struggling brown and white voters that other conservatives cannot. As Charles Murray now writes, the white working class is losing ground, losing hope and losing faith in its chances of upward mobility. A message based on a "leave us alone" theory is unlikely to move them at all.

"Republicans ... need to recognize that most voters don't care about limited government," Scott Rasmussen tells us -- but they have a deep need for the kind of society that limited government brings. Republicans have to explain this to people so they understand it, and then help them move them to it. The Ryans and Rubios are starting to do this. And they will start winning again.

Examiner Columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."

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Noemie Emery

The Washington Examiner