Do Voters Really Want A “Big Picture” Election?

Both campaigns seem to be focusing on an argument that the voters don't want to hear.

With Paul Ryan now part of the Republican Presidential ticket, both campaigns are now telling voters that this election is about “big ideas” and a choice between two different visions of America’s future. Leaving aside the question of whether or not this is really true, given the fact that the next four years are unlikely to be substantively different in terms of policy initiatives regardless of who wins the election, this is how the campaigns are framing the election now, and it’s how the media is starting to characterize. In some sense then, this “choice” meme will be driving force of the campaign absent some outside event that intervenes and forces both campaigns to change course. As I noted yesterday, this involves something of a change for the Romney campaign, which had been attempting to focus the election solely on the economy, and it seems to play into the strategy the Obama campaign has been following for months now.

The more important question, though, is whether this “grand debate” is what the voters want. ABC News’s Amy Walter argues that it isn’t:

In picking Rep. Paul Ryan, whose eponymous budget plan has become synonymous with political polarization, Mitt Romney assured an ideological campaign where a debate over the role of government will be front and center. It is a debate the Obama campaign and partisans on both sides are also eager to have. But it’s not a debate that swing voters want.

They aren’t as interested in choosing whether government should be more active or less. They are more interested in simply having it work.

(…)

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney argue that this election provides voters with a very stark choice between two competing ideologies. One that says that government can be part of the solution (Obama) and one that says that government is getting in the way of the solution (Romney).

But there are plenty of voters out there who are more concerned about function than ideology. They aren’t spending their evenings debating the benefits of Hayek or Keynesian economic models. They are just trying to figure out which candidate is capable of getting something done. They will reward the politician who succeeds in getting things moving again. But that shouldn’t be taken as proof that voters are endorsing the philosophical underpinnings of that success.

In other words, voters are looking less at ideology and more at competency. And that’s not something that either side has been able to show that can deliver.

Walter is on to something here, I think. In each of the past three national elections, voters have acted in a manner that, to pundits, looked as if they were making an ideological choice. In 2006, frustrated largely by a President who was sustaining an unpopular war, they gave control of Congress back to the Democrats for the first time since the early 1990s. In 2008, thanks to an economic crisis and a lack of leadership in Washington, they gave the Democrats complete control of both branches of government. At this point, no doubt, many Democrats assumed that the voters were effectively endorsing their vision of government but that was a mistaken conclusion because, two years later, the continued economic crisis combined with the perception that President Obama and the Democratic Congress had overstepped their bounds, led to Republicans taking control of the House and making substantial inroads in the Senate.

To look at these three elections in the space of only four years from the perspective of those who want elections to be about the “big things,” you’d probably come to the conclusion that the American people are schizophrenic when it comes to political ideology. After all, what sense is there in giving power to the Democrats in two successive wave elections, only to give it the Republicans in an unprecedented third consecutive wave election?

The answer to the question is that, to a large degree, these election results have little to do with ideology and everything to do with the sense  among voters that Washington isn’t working properly and that the answer is to “vote the bums out.” Viewed from that perspective, the elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010 can be seen not as endorsements of a specific ideology about the proper role of government but a sign that voters are sick of what they see in the news day after day about how their elected leaders are seemingly incapable of getting anything done. The most recent example of that, of course, was last years’s debt ceiling debacle. After that was over, the only real impact it had on public attitudes was to increase the frustration the public has witheveryone in Washington, regardless of political party. You can see manifestations of that attitude all over the place. The approval ratings for institutions of government at all levels are at or near historic lows, with Congress at one point recently garnering a pathetically low 9% approval rating, and the bellwether right track/wrong track poll has been in negative territory since before the 2008 election. Given how the last six years have gone, it’s easy to understand why that’s the case, and why voters are increasingly frustrated with politics at all levels to the point where many of them simply tune it out.

I would submit that voters aren’t looking for the “big picture” debate that both campaigns now seem committed to for the 2012 election. They’re more concerned with finding out what can be done to get back to a point where Congress is able to do things that it needs to without making every little argument a major partisan battle. They’re concerned with finding out who’s going to get the country back on the right track, and they don’t really care if that person read Keynes, Hayek, or Ayn Rand. And, they’re concerned about fixing an economy that appears to be broken. As Matthew Yglesias notes, the “big picture” debate doesn’t answer any of these questions:

[F]ocusing attention on the big-picture disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about long-term fiscal policy means we won’t be focusing attention on what ought to be the most pressing economic policy issue of our time—mass unemployment and the tragic waste of human and economic potential it represents. To be sure, politicians will still talkabout this. But obviously Obama would prefer at this point to talk about long-term vision and the contrast between his “balanced approach” and the GOP’s cut-cut-cut approach. With Ryan on the ticket, he more and more gets his way. Which means conservatives also get their way. Romney doesn’t just run as “Mr Fix-It” who’ll clean up the mess, he’s running as an ideological candidate with a major vision for changing the country. But that means the terrible economic performance since 2009 and the large jobs deficit built up during that period are going to receed further into the rearview mirror.

Additionally, as David Frum points out, contrary to popular belief on the right, the great conservative hero Ronald Reagan did not run an ideological campaign when he was victorious in 1980:

Although Ronald Reagan was a highly ideological candidate, he did not run a highly ideological campaign. Quite the contrary! Precisely because party conservatives trusted Reagan’s ideological commitment, they allowed him space to move to the center.

Seeking the GOP nomination in 1976, Reagan had pledged large immediate cuts in federal spending ($90 billion, at a time when that was a lot of money). In 1980, Reagan emphasized an easier-to-swallow message of tax cuts, not spending cuts — and indeed promised that he’d protect the Medicare program he’d opposed when it was created in the mid-1960s.

The results for Reagan were different in 1980 than they were in 1976 for many reasons, not the least of them being the state of the economy and the fact that the nation was further removed from the Watergate scandal that had tainted the Republican Party, but chief among them was the fact that he understood an important truth. That truth is that the American public does not tend to vote for highly ideological reasons. That’s one of the reasons that highly ideological parties don’t succeed in the United States except under exceptional circumstances (such as the anti-slavery Republican Party in 1860). That’s still true today, and it’s the reason that both parties are arguably missing the boat by focusing on arguments that the public doesn’t want to hear.

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FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2012, Politicians, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Moosebreath says:

    “the fact that the next four years are unlikely to be substantively different in terms of policy initiatives regardless of who wins the election”

    Uh-huh. So we’re supposed to assume the Ryan Budget, which nearly every Republican member of Congress voted for, and which Romney said he would sign, with its massive tax cuts to the rich and safety net cuts for the poor, would not be enacted into law if Republicans had control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency. Other than because you think it unlikely that Republicans will win if the voters are reminded of this, and it meets your Randian Utopian vision of society, why exactly should we think this?

  2. Argon says:

    “You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives…You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.
    We use words like honor, code, loyalty…we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I’d rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to!”

    Jessup, from A Few Good Men (and the GOP)

  3. David M says:

    A big picture election isn’t focused on the economy, so no I doubt that is what voters are looking for.

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    @Moosebreath:

    So we’re supposed to assume the Ryan Budget, which nearly every Republican member of Congress voted for, and which Romney said he would sign, with its massive tax cuts to the rich and safety net cuts for the poor, would not be enacted into law if Republicans had control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency.

    I think there is in fact a reasonable chance that even if the Ryan budget happens it won’t matter. The document is so incoherent and lacking in detail that the more I consider it, the more likely I think that was the point all along. It gave the Party something with which to rally its base to a fever-pitch without actually doing anything substantive. There are plenty of closet Keynesians in the leadership, and I’m starting to think Ryan may be one of them.

  5. @Moosebreath:

    “the fact that the next four years are unlikely to be substantively different in terms of policy initiatives regardless of who wins the election”

    Yeah, in the same way that the George W. Bush presidency was exactly like the Clinton years. No surprises there.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    “…the elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010 can be seen not as endorsements of a specific ideology about the proper role of government but a sign that voters are sick of what they see in the news day after day about how their elected leaders are seemingly incapable of getting anything done…”

    Well…yeah…but that analysis ignores the fact that nothing is getting done because Republicans are mired in ideological mud. And if you took off your BOTH SIDES DO IT blinders, I think you would see that Obama’s so-called ideology is really nothing more than a response to the Republican ideology. An ideology by-the-way that is holding back the economy. So in reality the discussion is about the economy and jobs…do you want to invest in the future, and send aid to the States, which will create jobs today…or do you want to give a tax cut to Mitt Romney which will never create any jobs…as witnessed by the Bush years.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    @ Ben Wolf…
    Ryan isn’t a closet Keynesian…his record is there for everyone to see.
    The problem is that the stenographers in DC have trouble seeing.

  8. Ben Wolf says:

    @C. Clavin: Ryan’s actual record is in voting for bills which have enormously increased deficits and government liabilities. This and his track-record of supporting extremist assaults on civil and constitutional liberties is what suggests he isn’t the libertarian shining hope he appears to be.

  9. @Ben Wolf:

    There are plenty of closet Keynesians in the leadership, and I’m starting to think Ryan may be one of them.

    That’s interesting, because the goal in any election is to fool as many people as possible into thinking that you secretly share their position.

    If Ryan can convince you that he’s a Keynesian and someone else that he’s a solid Laffer, so much the better.

    That’s why “hitting the reset” is so important. Of course, never want to say “Etch-A-Sketch” because that makes it all too plain.

  10. @Ben Wolf:

    Of course, he could just be a George W. Bush Republican .. probably not the thing he wants us to deduce from the (multiple?) reset.

  11. Ben Wolf says:

    @john personna: Ryan’s efforts at convincing anyone of anything have focused entirely on riding the Tea Party surge to a position of influence and prominence. I suspect there are many things he says that he doesn’t buy, he’s just using the dominant energy in the Party for career advancement. He’s a younger and less orange John Boehner.

  12. David M says:

    @Ben Wolf: It’s pretty clear Ryan is using the Tea Party as an opportunity to lower taxes on higher incomes. He already supported that as policy so it’s not like it was a stretch for him.

  13. Ben Wolf says:

    @David M: Unfortunately a lot of people are still buying into the Laffer Curve, Paul Ryan among them. But look at his record: what serious effort has he made to cut spending? I don’t buy for a minute he thought his Path to Prosperity would ever pass the Senate and a presidential veto. It was a showpiece to demonstrate that Republicans were “doing something”.

  14. rudderpedals says:

    The mysterious swing voter just wants to make things go. Often discussed but rarely seen*, the species is famously immune to the distractions of “the big picture” and “thought” while searching for the candidate who’ll make them go.

    *Observed infrequently in views from nowhere

  15. Mr. Prosser says:

    “I would submit that voters aren’t looking for the “big picture” debate that both campaigns now seem committed to for the 2012 election. They’re more concerned with finding out what can be done to get back to a point where Congress is able to do things that it needs to without making every little argument a major partisan battle.” Agreed, and that’s why I think you’ll see the presidential campaign continue to hammer on the RR weak points (Bain, Budget, women’s issues {Ryan’s record is totally anti-choice} etc) and also begin to emphasize down ticket races to say, “We’ll get things done with the current president continuing and with new members in Congress.”

  16. al-Ameda says:

    How smart and “big picture’ oriented are the voters?

    Well in 2010 they turned Congress over to the most conservative obstructionist Republican representatives they could find. Was that a good thing? Most recent polling shows that those elected representatives have an public approval rating of about 10 percent. I think voters are angry, frustrated, and they want what they want, all without having to pay a penny more in taxes than they pay right now.

    The voters are no piece of cake, the voters are part of the problem they complain about.

  17. sam says:

    @Doug

    As I noted yesterday, this involves something of a change for the Romney campaign, which had been attempting to focus the election solely on the economy, and it seems to play into the strategy the Obama campaign has been following for months now.

    Jesus, Doug, ‘something of a change’ is rather weak, don’t you think? It’s a stone admission of failure. We probably won’t be talking about the economy very much from here to the election. Instead we’ll be getting endless variations on “I do not want to run granny off the cliff, no matter how many times those Obama meanies say I do.”

    The boys in Chicago have well and truly roped the dope, I think.

  18. stonetools says:

    Some history : the public elected the Democrats on a wave election in 2006 to bring an end to the misguided Iraq War. In 2008 the Dems surged on a pledge to end the wars and to “solve” the economic crisis.

    When the Obama Administration swept in, it had a well-formed plan to end the wars and it has executed its foreign policy well. unfortunately, it did not have a great economic plan. ( It also did not understand that the Republicans would oppose it tooth and nail on domestic policy).
    It ended up applying the right remedy-Keynesian stimulus-but not enough of it,partly because of compromises made to achieve a “bipartisan ” result.
    By 2010. the public’s focus had shifted again.Now unemployment was all important and no one gave a damn about the Iraq War, financial regulation, or HCR. The public blamed the Obama Administration for the continuing economic crisis, and savagely punished the Democrats. The Obama Administration simply didn’t realize just how focused the public was on the unemployment crisis , and seemed shocked that they got no points for ending the Iraq War and other achievements. However, its been unable to mount a sustained campaign for a second round of stimulus-the best solution for unemployment-, largely because the first was successfully spun by the Republicans as a failure.

    Now the good thing for the Obama Administration its that we have had two years of seeing the Republican House of 2010 fail totally at doing anything to help unemployment and at even hurting the economy . It should be easy for the Democrats to argue that we should throw the Republicans out yet again. Having a member of the worst Congress ever on the presidential ticket should make that argument easier still. But they must present a convincing argument for a second round of stimulus.

  19. steve says:

    @Ben- I share some of the same concerns. Ryan even voted for the auto bailouts (I just found that out) under Bush. We know he voted for TARP and Medicare Part D. My concern is that he is just another modern era conservative. Willing to propose spending cuts when not holding the Presidency. Once in office, realizing that tax cuts are popular and spending cuts are not, will he do the same thing they have all done and back out on the spending cuts?

    Steve

  20. Hoot Gibson says:

    Do voters want a big picture election?
    Of course not, silly. Voters want endless ads about how Romney tied his dog to the roof of his car, how some guy said he didn’t pay taxes for 10 years, how he is a felon and murdered a woman—did anyone ever do an ad about Ted Kennedy killing a woman?

    Voters don’t want the truth they want the soothing lies of Democrats who will assure us we can get everything we want for FREE at absolutely no cost to us.

    And so, If Obama is reelected, we will have received the government we deserve—but hold on to your wallet!

    Or move out of the country—whatever.