Republicans won the midterm elections. Now can they survive?

By Frank I. Luntz
Sunday, November 7, 2010;

The United States has just witnessed its third straight rubber band election. Once again, Americans had their patience stretched, fired a Washington run amok and now want their new leaders to snap back to attention. The government Americans seek is simpler, more efficient and more accountable; one that takes on less but does better; one that executes the essential and eschews the excessive.

For two election cycles, the winners overpromised and underdelivered. So, will a newly divided Washington finally learn how to govern effectively in dire times?

First, a warning to both sides. Republicans, for their part, must realize that the voters have given them a reprieve, not an endorsement. In my polling last week, GOP voters agreed with this statement by more than two to one: "I am willing to give the Republicans another chance, but if they mess up again, I'll vote them out again, too." That's hardly a cause for GOP celebration.

Similarly, Democrats must grasp that their defeats were not about deficient personalities or insufficient communication, but about their philosophy and substance. Roughly two out of three voters agreed with the statements that President Obama "has failed to deliver hope and change" and that in the midst of an economic crisis, Democrats "had their priorities wrong."

The post-midterm realities are simple: If the Republicans don't deliver on their promises, they're finished. If the Democrats continue doing what they're doing, they're finished.

Both sides are promising to fulfill the will of the people, but people aren't asking for promises. They're asking for new priorities - their priorities.

Over the past two years, I've polled tens of thousands of Americans. Their top complaint about politicians is that they fail to "say what they mean and mean what they say." Their top complaint about government is that it lacks "accountability." Their top complaint about Washington is that "government has grown too big, too inefficient, and too out of control to do even the bare minimum things it is supposed to do."

These concerns explain why Hurricane Katrina ended President George W. Bush's presidency three years before his term expired. They explain why the gulf oil spill disaster crystallized voters' concerns that Obama is in over his head. And they explain why the stimulus - after all those billions in debt, unemployment is still near 10 percent - has been deemed a failure.

Americans' agenda is simple. In broad terms, they want the government to spur job growth, but not by subsidizing more government jobs with taxpayer dollars. They want Washington to balance the budget and reverse the growing influence of government on daily life. They want the government to encourage success, allow failure, punish those who break the law - and then get out of the way. And above all, they want politicians to follow through on their promises, even if that means tempering those promises in the first place.

They also show clear support for the following five ideas:

l (1) Balance the budget as quickly as possible through meaningful spending reductions, a hard spending cap and a constitutional amendment so that it never gets unbalanced again.

l (2) Eliminate all earmarks until the budget is balanced, then require a two-thirds vote by Congress for future earmark legislation.

l (3) Keep taxes down by requiring supermajorities for increases, and eventually enact tax reform with a simple, low, fair rate that drastically reduces the length of the IRS code.

l (4) Create a blue-ribbon task force that engages in a complete, line-by-line forensic audit of federal agencies and programs to end waste and reduce red tape and bureaucracy.

l (5) And require Congress to provide specific constitutional authorization for every bill it passes so that the government stays within the boundaries imagined by the founders.

One more thing: Voters want their representatives home in their districts and holding monthly town halls. The worst strategic mistake House Democrats made this year was canceling scores of public meetings, denying their constituents the chance to be heard. Hell hath no fury like a voter silenced, so the voters spoke in unison on Election Day.

I've found that each of these policies has at least 60 percent public support, so if you agree with most of them, it means you're in the American mainstream. It also means that - wait for it - you agree with the tea party.

These points come directly from the tea-party-backed "Contract From America," a document compiled from and voted on by the various tea party organizations and promoted by FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group. This governing agenda is supported not only by conservatives, but also by largely nonideological, anti-political voters in the middle.

The tea party is not some fringe coalition hopelessly removed from the mainstream. It is not, as The Washington Post recently wrote, "a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process." The movement supplied the ideas that made independent voters flip from favoring Democrats by an 18-point margin in 2006 to supporting Republicans by 15 points Tuesday - and it will keep pressuring the government to change until the government truly changes.

As much as Democrats rightfully fret over the tea party, establishment Republicans should fear it just as much. The movement has already put Republicans on notice: Deliver or get dumped. Nearly six in 10 registered voters I surveyed the weekend before the elections agreed with the following statement: "If Republicans do win a majority in the House and Senate and fail to deliver on their promises, I would consider supporting the creation of a new third party dedicated to reducing the size and scope of Washington." (Only 17 percent disagreed.)

And when asked "which best represents your views?," about a third of registered voters, 36 percent, chose Democrats, while 25 percent chose the GOP and 22 percent opted for the tea party. Together, Republicans and the tea party movement represent 47 percent of America to the Democrats' 36 percent. That's a recipe for massive electoral success in 2012 if they stay united, but unprecedented failure if they pull apart.

This is the whole story of American politics today. When conservatives are divided or dispirited, Democrats win. But united, conservatives control the political landscape.

House speaker-in-waiting John Boehner (R-Ohio) understands this. "If we're listening to the American people, I don't see any problems incorporating members of the tea party along with our party," he said after the GOP's victories in House elections on Tuesday. "They want us to cut spending and focus on creating jobs in America."

Meanwhile, Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the soon-to-be majority leader and creator of the YouCut spending-reduction project, which puts the budget knife in the hands of taxpayers, has talked about his commitment to "drain the swamp rather than learning to swim with the alligators." That's exactly what America wants to hear.

The last time Republicans gained control of the House, in 1994, they achieved more in the first 100 days than some Congresses have in two years. From welfare reform to tax cuts to a balanced budget amendment, they passed every one of their 10 "Contract With America" items. Some of this agenda stalled in the Senate, and much of it was vetoed by President Bill Clinton, but they held on to their majority for a dozen years because of those first 100 days. They worked with the president when they could, opposed him when they couldn't - and the American people were satisfied with the results.

Once again, Republicans cannot be timid. American voters overwhelmingly support spending cuts to balance the budget; six in 10 of them support a 21 percent across-the-board cut in nonmilitary discretionary spending, even if it means reductions in education and health programs. With their "Pledge to America" in September, House Republicans campaigned on this 21 percent cut.

The question now: Do they have the courage and the determination to deliver what they promised? If so, they can look forward to a governing majority nationally and locally for a decade, perhaps even a generation.

Frank I. Luntz, a pollster and communications adviser, is the author of "What Americans Really Want ... Really" and the forthcoming "Win: The Key Principles to Take Your Business From Ordinary to Extraordinary."

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