Lesson from the Election: People Want Less Government

The lesson I draw from the Republican victories in the 2014 election is that people want less government.  Since 2009 the number of Democratic Senators fell from 58 to 45, the number of democratic House members fell from 256 to 192, and the number of Democratic governors fell from 28 to 18.  I’m not the first to observe that these big Democratic losses are directly related to the unpopularity of President Obama’s big government agenda.

But wait… didn’t he come in with a mandate?  Both the House and Senate went Democratic in 2006, prior to Obama’s election, and he ran as a big government candidate, more or less.  Actually, I’d say less.  He ran on a platform of “hope and change,” an anti-Bush campaign.  He was running against what he called “the eight failed Bush-McCain years,” rather than running on his own platform.  Yes, he talked about health care reform, but mostly, he campaigned against Bush (who. at that point, wasn’t running for anything).

It appears that Bush’s waning popularity in his second term was also a sign of opposition to big government.  Bush initiated two wars and a major Medicare expansion, turned a budget surplus when he took office into a substantial deficit when he left, and completely eroded any notion of fiscal conservatism.  In 2000 he appeared to be a principled supporter of limited government.  By 2006, when the Congress turned Democratic, he appeared to be a big-spending foreign interventionist.

Remember a few limited government promises Obama did make on the campaign trail: end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and close the prison in Guantanamo.  Those promises sounded good to American voters, but six years later, they haven’t materialized.

There is more here than just the idea that presidents grow unpopular after six years in office.  Both Bush and Obama generated voter backlash because of their big government policies.  The problem is that for both Republicans and Democrats, the people who run for office are people who believe the government can solve our problems.  If people really do want to curb the power and influence of government, the best thing they can do is vote for divided government and hope for gridlock.  That’s what voters did.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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