Americans aren't buying the GOP agenda

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In the wake of the election, conservatives are full of advice for President Obama. The "unmistakable message" of the election, says presumptive House Speaker John Boehner, is "change course," and that begins by cutting spending and lowering taxes. The election, writes a dyspeptic George F. Will, was "nationwide recoil against Barack Obama's idea of unlimited government." A rational and alarmed American majority, says Will, believed that "government commands and controls" were "superseding and suffocating the creativity of a market society's spontaneous order."

Were voters really unleashing their hidden Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand?

It's true that conservatives, aroused in part by the Tea Party and its opposition to Obama, came out in large numbers - making up more than 40 percent of the electorate last week. The Obama base, probably exhausted - as Velma Hall famously told the president in an October town hall meeting, "of defending you, defending your administration" - turned out in smaller numbers.

But the whiter, older, more conservative electorate last Tuesday remained skeptical of the conservative agenda. On spending, these voters were of mixed minds. Asked in exit polls what the first priority of Congress should be, as many said spending to create jobs (37 percent) as said reducing the deficit (39 percent). On taxes, the conservative position was taken by a distinct minority of Tuesday's voters, with 39 percent saying Congress should extend the Bush tax cuts to all, while more than half the voters supported extending them only to those with incomes under $250,000 (37 percent) or not extending them all (15 percent).

An election-eve poll done by Greenberg Associates for the Campaign for America's Future (CAF) and Democracy Corps asked voters to choose between a jobs agenda including rebuilding infrastructure, extending middle-class tax cuts and investing in science and technology versus a program modeled on the Republican pledge of cutting spending, extending all tax cuts and providing small businesses with a tax cut. The electorate that voted in Republicans preferred the investment agenda by 51 to 43 percent.

Gore Vidal once described America as "the United States of Amnesia." Yet it would be bizarre if Americans were pining for the "market society's spontaneous order" while they were still struggling to dig out of the deregulated market's catastrophic collapse. Many yearn for a simpler time, for a return to the era when America was prosperous and the middle class was growing - as in the post-World War II years, when the top tax rate was 90 percent, a conservative Republican president was building the interstate highway system, capital and currencies were tightly regulated, labor unions represented 30 percent of the workforce and wages were rising.

But even the voters who rebuked Democrats for failing to fix the economy aren't yearning for George Will's dystopian, unregulated markets. In the CAF-Democracy poll, voters were asked whether they favored or opposed a plan to "launch a five-year strategy to revive manufacturing in America," including "providing companies with incentives to make it in America, ending tax breaks that reward moving jobs abroad, enforcing 'buy America' provisions on government spending, countering unfair trade and currency practices by China and others, investing in research and technology to foster new products and markets."

It is hard to imagine a greater conservative nightmare: An industrial strategy with five-year plans, buy American, spending, trade wars. Yet 80 percent of conservative voters yearning for the "creativity of the market society's spontaneous order" approved of the plan, over half strongly, as opposed to 9 percent opposed.

So suffer George Will his Adam Smith tie pin, but ignore his advice. Let Boehner maintain his perpetual tan. If Democrats want to listen to voters, they'd be well advised to push hard on a bolder program to rebuild America and put people back to work.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.

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