The Conservative Delusion: Mike Pence Explains the Meaning of the 2008 Election

Why would politicians pursue policies both they and voters thought were bad?

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Mike Pence, the Chairman of the House Republican Conference, was on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" this morning explaining why President Obama is wrong about ... well everything. He explained apparently quite seriously that the American people "fired" the Republicans in power last year because the electorate was tired of too much big government, etc. etc. which is why Obama should really cut taxes and spending and everyone will be happy.

And it reminded me of a question that pops into my head every time I hear a conservative explain that Republicans lost their way with unpopular big government policies: Why did the GOP lose its way pursuing policies voters don't like? How does that happen?

Let's quickly dispense with the canard that the 2008 elections were a vote for change toward more conservatism: Exit polls showed voters thought that the government "should do more" by a 51-43 percent margin over those who thought it was "doing too much." And McCain won the "doing too much" group by a 71-23 percent margin. So while voters in Mike Pence's very conservative district undoubtedly were dissatisfied by eight insufficiently conservative years of GOP rule, that was not an issue for most of the rest of the country. (Oh and here's one other data point for Pence and conservatives to consider: Public approval of Congress shot up a dozen points last month to a four year high of 39 percent, according to Gallup.)

But let's play this out: Suppose America really is a basically ideologically conservative country; suppose that the 2008 repudiation of the GOP was about their being insufficiently conservative; that what voters were really hoping of Barack Obama is that he would morph into a doctrinaire small government type. Why did the GOP stray?

Politicians don't generally pursue policies that run counter to both their own ideology and the will of the voters. They go against their ideology because the voters want them to; or they go against the voters because their conscience dictates it. But rare is the politician who pursues an unpopular policy that deep down they think is wrong.

Granted that that would require a special brand of stupidity of which Republicans have often been accused (sometimes even by their political opponents), but it just doesn't make sense. But then again little coming from the conservative camp does these days.

But the truth is that most voters are not animated by conservative ideology. Republicans went on a spending spree because it was popular with their constituents. Which isn't to say that this is an ideologically liberal electorate but rather that pols would be smart to not try to ascribe a strong ideology to the country. It's just not there.

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