Op-Ed

The Brand of Conservatism That Will Win (and the One That Will Fail) in 2012

William A. Galston

Tuesday night’s election results illuminate the terrain on which the 2012 election will be fought. The American people want government to address their problems, but not at the cost of excessive intrusion in their lives. They recoil from ideologically motivated attacks on workers and on women. While they are open to a moderate brand of conservatism, they will reject a harder-edge and more extreme version.

In Virginia, Republicans picked up at least half a dozen seats in the
General Assembly and appear poised to take control of the senate, which
would give them unified control of the state government. Governor Bob
McDonnell’s low-key style has played well with the electorate, which
regards him more as a pragmatic problem-solver than as a partisan
ideologue. For example, while his approach to transportation left many
Democrats and northern Virginians dissatisfied, he did not reject an
expanded role for the public sector. He framed the state’s all-consuming
transportation debate as a matter of means rather than ends—addressing
the backlog with a long-term bond issue rather than immediate tax
increases—a characterization that most Virginians seemed to accept. At
least for now, his moderate conservatism defines the center of Virginia
politics, which is good news for national Republicans such as Mitt
Romney and not such good news for the Obama team.

In Ohio, the electorate delivered an instructive split decision. On
the one hand, more than six in ten Ohio voters rebuked Republican
governor Bob Kasich for attacking the state’s public employees. While
surveys showed that voters favored proposals to make state workers
contribute more for health care and retirement, they rejected moves to
strip them of collective bargaining rights, a measure favored by
hard-core conservatives but not more mainstream voters. Kasich, they
judged, had gone too far, and they responded with a stunning reprimand. 

But by an even larger margin, these same voters also endorsed a
referendum that would block the state from implementing an individual
mandate like the one contained in President Obama’s health reform bill.
Every survey I’ve seen shows the same thing: While Americans endorse
major provisions of the bill such as guaranteed issue of insurance
regardless of preexisting conditions, they reject the individual mandate
and want to see it repealed. The margin in favor of repealing the
mandate was 67 to 27 in the March 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation poll
(although additional facts and arguments did move respondents in a more
favorable direction). An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from June of this
year showed that while 31 percent were more likely to vote in favor of a
presidential candidate who supported requiring all Americans to have or
purchase health insurance, 50 percent would be less likely. In 1996,
Bill Clinton’s signature domestic policy achievement—welfare reform—was a
large plus in his successful reelection campaign. The Affordable Care
Act seems unlikely to play that role for Barack Obama next year. 

So the message from two key states—one the symbol of Obama’s new
majority, the other of the classic battleground—is much the same. While
the voters are open to moderate conservatism, they won’t follow along if
conservatives go too far. But when they think liberal governance goes
too far in the other direction, they’ll reject that too. Despite the
polarization of today’s party politics, there is still a center of
gravity in the electorate that isn’t entirely comfortable with either
party and wants to see less confrontation and more compromise. They’re
seeking a point of equipoise, which today’s political system is poorly
structured to provide.

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