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Philip Klein: GOP, small-government conservatism and public opinion

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Liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent points to a new Pew poll showing majorities favoring tax increases on those earning over $250,000 and opposing cuts to entitlements, and sees a deep problem for Republicans. Their agenda is unpopular, he argues, yet many members of the GOP House are in safe districts so they don’t have an incentive to compromise. The “underlying problem,” he writes, “is that the GOP vision of government seems to be fundamentally and increasingly out of step with how majorities view its proper scope and role.”

To start, it’s always important to recognize that poll results depend on what questions the pollsters ask. On election night, even as President Obama coasted to reelection, Politico reported that according to exit polls, “53 percent of those surveyed said the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals — a figure that’s risen 10 points since the 2008 election. Comparatively, 41 percent of voters said they believe government should be doing more.” This isn’t to ignore the other polling data that is discouraging for small government conservatism, but to question the idea that there’s some sort of fundamental shift toward support of big government.

It’s also important to recognize that a poll is a snapshot in time. It isn’t surprising to me that right now, most Americans would prefer raising taxes on two percent of taxpayers and avoiding cuts to entitlements. Because as of now, Democrats have gotten away with promoting the fantasy that the nation can balance the budget by making modest adjustments to spending while protecting 98 percent of the country from tax increases. But they won’t be able to get away with this fairy tale forever. At some point, reality will set in, and the reality is that in order to protect entitlements from major changes, Democrats will have to back massive across the board tax hikes. Let’s see how polls turn out when middle class Americans are asked whether they want to pay significantly higher taxes in order to minimize cuts to entitlement programs, or how they’ll feel when interest rates and inflation are soaring as a result of the national debt.

Now, Sargent may be right that in the nearer term, Republicans face political challenges. As I openly acknowledge in my column today, they don’t have much leverage in the current “fiscal cliff” negotiations. But over time, small government conservatism offers a way out of the fiscal mess caused by the welfare state without slamming the middle class with massive tax hikes, but liberalism does not. So over time, the debate will move in the GOP’s direction only if they’re the party of smaller government. And if they aren’t, they may as well disband as a party because they have no purpose for existing.

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