How much government is too much government?
The fundamental political fight between the two parties over the past two decades revolves around a very simple question: How much government is enough government?
The American electorate has shifted back and forth on the question for much of that time and, in new polling conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal, it’s clear that the answer remains (still) unresolved.
Forty nine percent of respondents in the poll said that “government should do more” while 47 percent said “government is doing too many things” — a split verdict that speaks to the uneasy and uncertain relationship Americans have with their government.
The party splits on the question are remarkable — and mirror opposites. One in five Democrats believe the government is doing too many things while that same number of Republicans see the government as needing to do more. Forty four percent of independents think the government should do more while 52 percent think government is doing too many things.
The debate over how much government is the right amount — we like to call it the “porridge” argument in honor of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” — has been raging since the start of, well, American government but the current iteration of it began in the mid 1990s.
That’s when Bill Clinton — a Democratic president! — famously/infamously declared that “the era of big government is over” in his 1996 State of the Union speech.
Clinton meant that line as a signal to the ideological center of the country that “Democrat” didn’t mean “big spending” and “big government” anymore. It was a message of survival for he — and his party at that moment. Democrats had just watched their 40-year long reign as the majority party in the House end and Clinton was scrambling to re-introduce himself to a restless public in advance of his 1996 re-election bid.
(In December 1995 — just a few months before Clinton’s State of the Union speech — 62 percent of people in NBC-WSJ polling said government does too many things while less than one in three said government should do more.)
Those numbers reversed themselves drastically during the second half of the 2000s as peoples’ impression of the need for government drastically increased. (Those sorts of changes can never be attributed to a single moment but the handling — or mishandling — of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 clearly had a major impact on how people viewed their relationship with government.)
By September 2007, 55 percent of people in the NBC-WSJ poll said that government should do more — and President Obama’s election in 2008 was predicated, at least in part, on the idea that he represented the vision of a more robust (and caring) government than had President George W. Bush.
And yet, roughly a year after Obama won that sweeping victory the public has flipped on government’s role — again. By October 2010 — a month before Republicans notched sweeping gains in the House and, to a lesser extent, the Senate — 50 percent of people thought government was doing too many things while 45 percent said it should do more.
Now, we are back to a statistically even split. What does all the movement on the question of how much (or little) government is the right amount tell us about the American electorate?
That they want government when they want it and don’t when they don’t. Which is, of course, an impossible position for a politician to wrap his or her arms around. Welcome to the modern world of politics — where people know what they don’t want but don’t know what they do want.