- - Wednesday, September 30, 2015


The two parties’ differing views of big government explain their differing challenges in winning the 2016 presidential election. For Democrats, the end justifies the means; for Republicans, they need a means to justify the end. Stuck between the two is America’s electorate, which has supported Democrats’ presidential politics in the last two elections but has rejected the president’s major policies over the duration of his term.

In the last two presidential elections, Democrats have achieved success they have not seen since FDR, twice winning majorities of the popular vote. These successes reverse what had been Democrats’ prior prevailing failure in presidential politics. In the 10 elections before 2008, Democrats had lost seven and the three they won — Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 — were the result more of Republican failure (Watergate in 1976 and Ross Perot splitting the conservative vote in 1992) than Democrat success.

However, during almost seven years in office, the Obama administration has not been able to win majority support for its major policies.

Across the policy board, President Obama is rated negatively in national polling. His overall job performance is negative. Among those who have strong feelings about his job performance, he is rated even more negatively.

On foreign policy, his negatives significantly outdistance his positives — including the Iran nuclear deal, which is being touted as his greatest foreign policy success. And, of course, on the economy and on Obamacare, the two dominant issues of his presidency, he has been decidedly underwater with the American people for years.

This majority policy opposition has proven fertile political ground for Republicans, who have harvested strong majorities at the federal and state levels.

Republicans not only control both houses of Congress — a rare feat in itself since the 1930s — but have their largest combined majorities in decades.

Often forgotten are even larger Republican majorities in the states. Republicans hold 31 governorships to Democrats’ 18. In state legislatures, Republicans control 30, while Democrats control just 11. Overall, Republicans control both the governorships and state legislatures in 23 states, while Democrats do so in just seven.

The problem for Republicans is that, while they have very successfully tapped Americans’ opposition to this administration’s policies, they have not welded that opposition into cohesion in the last two presidential elections nor — so far, at least — in the upcoming one. Essentially, the Republican Party is a rallying point for opposition to Democrats’ liberal policies, but has been unable to successfully advance a conservative alternative policy agenda in U.S. presidential politics.

The starkly dissimilar political and policy results for the two parties originate in their opposing views of big government itself.

Democrats’ distinct advantage in U.S. presidential politics is their overwhelmingly positive view of big government. Liberals, who form the core of the Democratic base, inherently embrace it as the most effective path to achieving their policy goals.

This strong embrace of the end result — winning control of the largest governmental apparatus — allows them to sublimate any doubts they may have about the candidate who wins their party’s nomination. In short, whatever the doubt about the means, the end — control of the presidency — justifies it.

Republicans’ distinct disadvantage is just the opposite, because their view of big government is just the reverse. Conservatives, who form Republicans’ core supporters, are inherently suspicious of it. This is particularly true in their belief that it is necessary to dismantle its objectionable elements — such as Obamacare.

For this reason, Republicans do not instinctively rally to a presidential candidate, even when that candidate embodies opposition to a liberal administration. Love and hate for big government

It is for this reason that, more than 30 years after his last campaign, Ronald Reagan is so venerated in Republican ranks. He was not the last successful Republican presidential candidate, but he was the most successful one in justifying why winning the presidency is important to the party.

It is for this reason that there is no comparable Democratic deification of their past successful presidents. Simply, Democrats do not need a Reagan. They fully accept the power and purpose of big government and do not need anyone or anything to make it palatable to them.

Writ large then, the questions of this election are no different than they have been for some time. Can Republicans find a candidate who can overcome their ambivalence to big government? And can Democrats’ find a candidate who can overcome Americans’ ambivalence to them?

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department, the Office of Management and Budget and as a congressional staff member.

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