Don't Misread the Mandate

Republicans, not long ago left for dead and scarcely lamented in both Madison and Washington, now find themselves exhumed. Voters are still wincing at the smell, but apparently they prefer it to the stink of looming insolvency that clings to Democrats.
Like anyone pulled from the grave, Republicans should be mightily grateful. But here is the hard question: How do they avoid such a drubbing as Democrats just got and a quick return to the political bone yard in 2012?

The conventional answer begins by saying that Democrats over-read their mandate. They wrongly interpreted the long fade of Reaganism as the public yearning for unchecked liberalism. Hence, the conventional prescription is that Republicans should turn rightward in only the most apologetic way. Congressman Paul Ryan, the Janesville Republican reelected by 75% in a swing district, says this diagnosis and prescription are wrong.

Nationally, he says, Democrats didn’t win control in 2006 and a firmer grip in 2008 because everyone fell in love with liberalism. “They won because everyone hated us,” he says. Voters hated Republicans because they promised cheaper government and didn’t deliver.

Democrats didn’t misread their mandate, either. They knew there was no mandate for steroidal government, Ryan maintains, either before or after the crash — and polls agree. The progressives who held the Democrats’ reins simply weren’t going to let a good crisis go to waste. “They just had an opportunity, and they took it,” says Ryan.

Do Republicans have a mandate?

Once again, the answer emerges nationally, from President Barack Obama. Airily dismissing Republicans as the “party of no,” the president offered a grandiose vision that the public saw with entirely different eyes: Do you want government that’s spendthrift beyond imagining, that remodels health care without reading the bill, that tries skyrocketing energy costs and looks impotent on fixing the economy?

The voters replied: No!

In Wisconsin, the public came to an equally harsh judgment on the efforts of Gov. Jim Doyle and the Democrats: Do you like budget bills that raised taxes by $3.3 billion in a recession? Or an economic policy that first repels old-line industries with an unfavorable tax and legal climate — and then chases after them with taxpayer-funded bribes to stick around?

Oh, and how about an expensive starter-kit train to offer sufficiently dignified rides for Madison lawyers and tech entrepreneurs heading for Chicago, while the rest of the state struggles under a crashed economy?

Not merely no, said voters. Get-out-of-my-face no!

“No” works for Republicans. That is their mandate.

It works because Democrats embraced ideas even more feckless than the Bush administration’s later flailings. No, said the public, you shouldn’t spend a jillion bucks on stimulus. No, don’t buy GM. Just stop, said voters, who went unheard.
What’s more, people grasp that many good things — love, ESPN, ice cream — emerge in society without government having thought them up. So it’s conceivable that if government, at least for now, just stood still until the economy recovers and the public has more money in its pockets, that wouldn’t be the worst thing. What progressives see as intolerable stasis, most people would interpret as settled conditions.

Granted, the “no” mandate rules out conservative ambitions such as restructuring Social Security, at least soon. But that’s fine.

If there’s a mandate-misreading risk to the new Republican majorities in Madison and Washington, it is the danger that they will be too reluctant to say no, too prone to the customary Republican error of saying, “Well, all right, but maybe not as fast.”

Now Republicans run Madison, and in Washington they have latitude to frame the two-year debate leading to 2012. They must stand unequivocally, Ryan says, for the proposition that the spending bender is over.

In Madison, one might extrapolate, Republicans must intentionally bring about more modest government. They must remember that their party’s resurrection is probationary. Do so, and they may be entrusted to work for greater change.
“A second chance — how often do you get that?” asks Ryan. Indeed: It’s a gift.

Patrick McIlheran is a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist.