Smaller government. That's the big theme Mitt Romney has chosen to run on. It's why he chose Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his running mate. Ryan makes the strongest case for smaller government since Ronald Reagan. But will it sell?
Election campaigns are driven by market research. The party out of power has to figure out what voters want that they are not getting from the incumbent. If the opposition campaign gets it right, they win. Examples: "Order" in 1968 (LBJ couldn't provide it, Richard Nixon ran on it). "Morality" in 1976 (Nixon couldn't provide it, Carter ran on it). "Empathy" in 1992 (George H.W. Bush didn't seem to have any, Bill Clinton felt your pain).
The opposition party can also get it wrong. In which case, it loses. Examples: "Fairness" for Walter Mondale in 1984 (didn't work in a year when it was "Morning in America"). "Competence" for Michael Dukakis in 1988 (no market for it when the economy was still strong). "Character" for Bob Dole in 1996 (the Lewinski scandal hadn't happened yet).
Is there a market for smaller government this year? Government has certainly gotten a lot bigger under President Obama. The federal budget deficit has nearly tripled. With passage of the Affordable Care Act, the country got a huge new federal entitlement program. Neil Newhouse, Romney's pollster, told the New York Times, "When you really probe, people are upset with spending, the deficit and the debt. It goes beyond jobs and the economy."
Actually, it doesn't. At least, not for most voters. Most Americans are dissatisfied with the way President Obama has managed the economy. Jobs are the big issue this year. Yes, some voters are really upset about big government ("spending, the deficit and the debt"). Who are they? The Tea Party.
The Tea Party does not represent the nation's most economically hard-pressed voters. It represents the nation's most ideologically hard-pressed voters. The Tea Party sprang into action as soon as President Obama took office because its supporters were enraged over the stimulus plan and government bailouts and health care reform. They saw Obama's agenda as ideological aggression -- their worst nightmare of big government.
If the Tea Party were really upset over the deficit and the debt, they would be willing to talk about tax increases, at least for the wealthy. Taxes have to be part of any realistic solution to the nation's long-term debt problem. Relatively modest tax increases were part of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles plan produced by the super committee on debt reduction last year. Paul Ryan was a member of that super committee. But he refused to sign on to the plan. He would not support any tax increases. And this is a guy who says he's worried about the national debt?
It's pretty clear that the Tea Party's real motive is to shrink government, not to reduce the debt. They want only spending cuts, and spending cuts only on domestic programs like Medicare and Social Security. Defense cuts, like tax increases, are off limits. All their wailing over the national debt is really a pretext. Reducing the debt opens the door to what they really want: less spending and smaller government. You have to reduce the debt their way.
The principal focus of the campaign is no longer jobs and the economy. It's Paul Ryan's budget plan and Medicare. That's not what Republicans should be talking about. Pushed by the Tea Party, Republicans are framing the debate as an ideological showdown over big government rather than a referendum on President Obama's stewardship of the economy.
After four years of Obama, are we seeing a surge of demand for smaller government this year? Americans always prefer limited government. It's part of our heritage. In the new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 55 percent say they would like a smaller government with fewer services. Only 40 percent want a larger government with more services. But those figures have hardly changed over the past 30 years.
The idea of big government is never popular, but the reality is OK. Nearly 60 percent of Americans want to keep Medicare the way it is. Three quarters think the federal government should regulate greenhouse gas emissions in order to help reduce global warming. Republicans aren't just attacking the idea of big government this year. They're rallying around a detailed plan to cut government spending -- the Ryan plan.
The basic difference between the parties is this: Republicans believe economic growth is sufficient. If the economy is growing, people can solve their own problems. Government should just get out of the way. Democrats believe economic growth is necessary but not sufficient. Government has to provide a safety net for people who are economically vulnerable.
If this campaign were a debate over economic growth, Obama would probably lose. Instead, Republicans are turning it into a debate over the safety net. Ronald Reagan was the first President to use the term "safety net." He promised to protect it. If the Romney-Ryan Republicans are now threatening to shred the safety net, they are very likely to lose. There's not a big enough market for that.
Follow Bill Schneider on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BillSchneiderDC