Yesterday’s election could be the start of something grand — but not because Republicans won the House. Many of the Obama administration’s policies, including stimulus, bailouts, increased health care entitlements, and stricter financial regulation, merely expand upon Bush-era GOP proposals. Republicans have not been friends of limited government (at least, not to date).
No, we are optimistic because voters turned out in droves to make a statement against big government, not to endorse GOP policies. Voters want an end to pork-barrel spending and the vote-trading that goes with it. They see the coming entitlement crisis, with liabilities that dwarf today’s record deficits. Voters are beginning to recognize that when something can’t go on forever, it will stop. And they want to put the brakes on!
More generally, voters are telling the federal government to return to its humbler constitutional limits. And while making those clarion calls, they are citing the Constitution more than ever. Though the Constitution is by no means perfect, it’s better than what we have now. This is all for the better.
More than 85 percent of incumbents running for re-election won this year. Many of the same faces will be returning in January. But those faces will be wearing different expressions. They will look somewhat less smug, and somewhat more scared. They will be visibly struggling to hide their disdain for the voting hoi polloi who want busybody politicians to mind their own business.
This sight for sore eyes is contingent upon voters continuing to press for smaller government. There is a lesson to learn here from the Bush-era anti-war movement. Anti-Iraq War protestors vanished into thin air almost the moment President Obama was elected. They gave up. That’s one reason there are still 50,000 troops in Iraq and America’s presence in Afghanistan has doubled.
This is the true test of the tea party movement. Tea partiers may not necessarily be card-carrying Republicans. Roughly half of them actually run liberal on social issues. But as a whole, they do lean right, and mostly vote Republican. Now the GOP controls a chamber of Congress, and it is largely the tea party’s doing.
Will tea partiers grow complacent in victory? Or will they continue to fight for economic liberalization? Will they hold their candidates’ feet to the fire as they catch Potomac fever once in office? If not, as our grandmothers suggested, whether your socks are red or blue, change them often!
Just as progressive gains in 2006 and 2008 were products of white-hot Bush-hatred, this year’s conservative gains are largely the result of similar antipathy toward President Obama. And he still has another two years in office. So the tea party probably has at least another two years as a viable political force. If President Obama wins a second term, the tea party could be around even longer.
If there is a lesson to be learned from 1994, it is that power is not an end in itself. The Republicans of 1995 gave up as reformers after about six months. Voters kept them around because they did a tolerable job of checking Clintonian excesses.
But six years of one-party rule under Bush were more than enough to show that Congressional Republicans were far more concerned with staying in power than with shrinking government. Federal spending roughly doubled under Bush, and that was enough to give them the boot.
Republicans might have learned a lesson this time around. Voters definitely have. The GOP’s job is not simply to serve as a check on the other party, though that is important. Their job is to shrink the federal government. Between $3.5 trillion in spending and another $1.7 trillion in regulatory costs, Washington now accounts for 29 percent of GDP. That’s too much.
It is the GOP’s job to stay sober during the current drunken spending binge. Republican politicians are figuring this out, if only because of the price they paid for their decade of tippling. But they need to be held accountable. As long as voters are willing to do that, whether through tea party protests or by other means, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic that the 2010 elections are the first step of many down the long road of true economic reform.
Fred L. Smith, Jr. is the President and Founder of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Ryan Young is Fellow in Regulatory Studies at CEI.