The American people don't like Congress very much, not even a little. So what does this tell us about the current presidential race?
Prominent opinion makers have been complaining about the "weak field" of candidates in the 2012 Republican presidential contest since it began. From George W. Bush to the Tea Party, there's lots of blame getting thrown around. Assuming this "weak field" meme is true, maybe it has more to do with people's overall view of the federal government than anything else. Because if the people don't like government, why would we expect them to be thrilled over people who want to run it?
Last September (2011), a Gallup poll showed a record 81 percent of Americans were "dissatisfied with the nation's governance." Considering that a Reason-Rupe survey taken a few months earlier found "96 percent of Americans say it is important to reduce the national debt," the overwhelming unpopularity of the bi-partisan federal regime, should come as no surprise.
Have you seen the debt?
Nor is just the debt. When you add the useless and abusive TSA, crony bailouts, secret bailouts, money printing, multiple endless wars, Internet surveillance, high unemployment, and the genuinely dire state of our economic affairs to the debt, it's amazing folks aren't ready for another revolution. So why would anyone expect the American people to be enthusiastic about more of the same with Republican attached to their name?
Americans Hate Congress
Americans hate Congress because they represent the federal government itself. It's not a personality problem. It's an institutional problem. Pass more laws and spend, spend, spend are the only things they know who to do. ObamaCare? People trust just about anyone more than they trust government when it comes to their healthcare needs. Lawmakers may joke "we're below sharks and contract killers" … the reality is that the joke is on the American people.
How unpopular is Congress? Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) put together a chart (via Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post).
The IRS is more popular than Congress. The IRS! Think about that one for awhile.
Congress is so unpopular they rank all the way down among third-world despots Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. And it's not just small-government types who are fed up with government either, discontent runs throughout the entire political spectrum.
This uneasiness about public trust would not be news if it were confined to libertarians and other small-government types who flat-out resent any state intrusion in to private affairs. But the public malaise on trust runs far broader. It covers wide segments of the population …
[T]he current unease is fueled by people who are comfortable with some substantial government role in providing jobs, supporting agriculture, subsidizing health care, financing education or regulating banking. They have the visceral sense that too much of a good mission becomes a bad mission … People are not amused when government pads its payroll with folks who don't do much of anything useful.
Is there a cure? Well, the bigger government gets, the more difficult it is to fix.
[T]he key problem deals more in atmospherics than in specifics. Government officials have real clout. They can deny you permits, investigate your business, call you into their offices, look at your books, fine you are send you to jail. Every piece of newer legislation gives them more discretion over issues in which they have no comparative expertise … It is a lot easier to fulminate at the bureaucrat who wants to tell you what health care insurance, if any, to buy, or what job you can take, or what office extension you can build, than it is to do so over the police officer who bungles an arrest. For the former, we can ask the question, why are these people in office anyhow. For the latter we know the answer to that question. People want to fire the new bureaucrat but train the new police officer. At long last we know which is the essential government function.
And so we can see the connection in the end. As big government gets still bigger, the confidence ordinary people have in its institutions grows weaker. That weakness reflects itself not only in a political resentment to the political parties in power. It also manifests itself in their gradual withdrawal from the market, manifested by a greater unwillingness to consume or to invest. With this skeptical mood, each expansionist move of the Obama administration is like feeding sugar to a diabetic. The diffuse nature of our uneasiness cannot be met by a small tweak in this tax subsidy or that statutory grace period. It needs a clear commitment to halt the current lurch toward ever-bigger government.
So what does all this tell us about the current Republican presidential contest?
The American people have grown tired of Big Government solutions. They don't want candidates who promise to tweak statism as does Mitt "me too" Romney and technocrat Saint Santorum who "advocate[s] greater government involvement in our lives." Instead, as Richard Epstein points out above, the people want "a clear commitment to halt the current lurch toward ever-bigger government."
Ron Paul, who polls best nationally against Obama in a general head to head matchup, offers that clear commitment, yet strangely, Ron Paul is doing poorly among Republican primary voters. Where's the Tea Party?
If they prefer a big-government social conservative what's the point of their movement?
Republican voters who "strongly supported" the Tea Party favored Rick Santorum -- 45 percent of that subgroup cast a ballot for the former Pennsylvania senator. Mitt Romney came in second place, winning 37 percent of strong Tea Party supporters, Newt Gingrich won 11 percent of their vote, and Ron Paul finished last with 6 percent.
These results underscore the chasm that separates what Tea Partiers say they care about and their revealed preferences …
[T]he voters who say they support [limited government, separation of powers, protection of individual rights, fiscal responsibility and transparency, free trade and commerce … ] have chosen, as their preferred 2012 nominee, Rick Santorum, the social conservative who says he voted contrary to his beliefs in order to be a "team player" during the big-spending, federal-government-expanding Bush Administration. Their least favorite is Ron Paul, the most consistent champion of all the issues they say that they care about most. It's almost a joke … what's the point of having a Tea Party at all?
Truth be told, I'm not sure what the point of the Tea Party is either. In their hatred of Congress, the general populace has made it stunningly clear that they're sick and tired of the status quo. But "conservative" Republicans? Not so much. Their appetite for liberty isn't remotely as strong as their need to "Sock It to the Left!" The Tea Party has shown itself to be just another organ of the GOP.
It's come to this. We the People will argue with each other, fighting tooth and nail, over Democrat Obama and Republican Romney/Santorum, neither of whom offer the meaningful change America needs (let alone "a clear commitment to halt the current lurch toward ever-bigger government"). We'll call each other names, make accusations, get all sanctimonious about stupid guffaws, and turn contraceptives into a national issue while Congress continues to legislate away our liberties and spend, spend, spend the United States into oblivion.
As things get worse, and they will, we'll promise upon the alter of God, before anyone who'll listen, that "never again" … That is, until the next mostestest importantantest election evah … Meaning "we" gotta "beat the Democrats" first, and we'll worry about liberty and fiscal responsibility someplace down the road. Conservatives are merely an organ of the GOP too.
Most Americans hate Congress, but so what? Very few will do anything about it. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, "Most men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty."