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

by William Galston | November 9, 2011

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issue of insurance regardless of preexisting conditions, they reject the individual mandate and want to see it repealed.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.

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Wisconsin AFL-CIO

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