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Republicans won the midterm elections. Now can they survive?

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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.

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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.


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