11/10/2010 09:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Not Your Mother's Conservatives

Presumptive House Speaker John Boehner labeled the president "clueless" for his reaction to the drubbing that Democrats took on election day. The voters, Boehner said, had an "unmistakable message: change course," and begin by cutting spending and government. It was, writes fusty George Will, "nationwide recoil against Barack Obama's idea of unlimited government."

Democrats suffered the worst rout in post-World War II elections on Tuesday. The electorate that turned out was more conservative, older, and whiter than the 2008 electorate that put Obama in the White House. And independents went Republican in large numbers, as an aroused conservative base helped turn out Republican leaning independents in large numbers. This electorate probably would have elected John McCain.

But these were not your Calvin Coolidge conservatives. They were throwing the bums out, but they weren't Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, free market zealots. You are probably sick of election analysis by now, but it is worth taking a closer look.

In the Campaign for America's Future and Democracy Corp election night poll, Greenberg Associates asked voters whether they favored or opposed the following economic proposal to be considered by Congress:

Launch a five year strategy to revive manufacturing in America, providing companies incentives to make it in America, ending tax breaks that reward moving jobs abroad, enforcing buy America provisions on government spending, countering unfair trade and currency practices by China and others, investing in research and technology to foster new products and market.

This is a proposal for a government led industrial policy to revive manufacturing -- progressive government at its most activist. Voters favored it 80-9%, including over 77% of swing voters, and 79% of those Republican leaning independents.

Democrats suffered large losses largely because voters were punishing them for the bad economy. But contrary to the Republican chorus since the election, those same voters were a long way from endorsing the conservative agenda. They think the country is on the wrong track, and they increasingly blame Obama, not for the bad economy, but for failing to fix it. But they haven't given up hope for the President, and remarkably, they are still open to a progressive message from him.

For example, the CAF-Democracy Corps poll asked voters how they would react to the following statement by the president after the election:

I have just met with the new Republican and Democratic leaders and asked them to work together with me to solve the country's problems. Voters across the country have sent a clear message and I've heard it. The economy isn't creating enough jobs but we can't go back to rising debt and dangerous bubbles. My commitment is to build a new foundation for jobs and growth that begins with making things in America again. Yes, we have to reduce our deficits, but it is not enough. We have to make investments in education, in research and innovation, in a competitive 21st century infrastructure. We have to lead in the new energy, Green industrial revolution sweeping the world. This has to be affordable, but m priority is working together to rebuild a successful America with a rising middle class.

Again, a classic statement of progressive "big government" activism -- invest, lead in new energy, priority to building a new foundation, not to reducing deficits. This is precisely what presumptive Speaker Rep. John Boehner would scorn as "clueless." Voters had a different reaction, with two-thirds calling it "positive," and only 31% rating it negative.

71% of swing voters found it positive (34% very positive) as well as 57% of those Republican leaning independents.

Neither the president nor the Democratic congressional leadership gets this. The White House filled with rancor that voters don't understand how much was accomplished in the president's first two terms. The congressional leaders find it impossible not to crow about what was, without question, the most productive congressional session since the 1960s.

It doesn't matter. The economy stinks. The damage to families is widespread and deep. People are scared. They see the country in a long term decline -- and they are fearful that the jobs aren't coming back. Many have lost wealth that they thought they had in their homes and retirement savings. The fear generated by widespread mass unemployment goes far beyond the 30 million Americans in need of full time work.

But they aren't small government conservatives. They are looking for answers. They are looking for leaders who will fight for them.

For example, the CAF-Democracy Corps poll asked voters to choose between two statements, one a classic Republican statement of free trade and the other a Democratic call for an assertive populist agenda on trade:

On trade and exports, the Republican leaders say we need to increase our exports, and that requires passing more trade agreements, getting government out of the way. American workers can compete and win with any workers across the world.


On trade and exports, the Democratic leaders say, "It's time to challenge countries like China that are taking our jobs, end subsides to corporations that send jobs abroad, stop passing NAFTA like trade deals until we have a national strategy for making things in America and exporting goods, not jobs.

Get government out of the way or stand up, get tough and create a national strategy? Yup, the same voters that elected Republicans went with the Democratic labeled statement 50-41%, including swing voters by a 31 point margin, 59-28%.

Voters are concerned about government spending and deficits, no doubt. Democrats paid a price because deficits were up, Wall Street was bailed out while Main Street was still looking for jobs. But reducing deficits is not the be all and end all for this electorate

For example, the Democracy Corps in a poll with Resurgent Republic, a Republican group, asked voters to choose between two statements:

I want somebody in Washington who will fight big corporate special deals and work for the middle class and American jobs.


I want somebody in Washington who will rein in government spending and deficits and stop higher taxes.

By 52-40%, voters chose fighting for jobs over reining in spending and taxes, including swing voters 61-30%

Similarly, in the CAF-Democracy Corps poll, we asked about deficit reduction and Social Security and Medicare:

The federal deficit is such a threat to our country that we have to cut spending broadly, including raising the Social Security age to 70.


The federal deficit is a big national problem, but politicians should keep their hands off Social Security and Medicare. The American people cannot afford cuts in these programs.

By a staggering 68-27, voters wanted politicians to leave Social Security and Medicare alone, including 66% of swing voters (52% strongly) and 56% of independents (42% strongly) and, amazingly, 62% of Republicans (47% strongly).

Is Anyone Listening?

These are not George Will's acolytes endorsing the bracing "market society's spontaneous order." (George apparently has already forgotten about the calamitous disorder financial markets just visited on us.) They aren't Newt Gingrich plunderers looking to privatize Social Security and sack Medicare. The perpetually tanned, country club denizen, presumptive Speaker John Boehner, is "clueless" about where they are. But he isn't the only one.

Now barely a week after the debacle, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell promises to vote again and again and again not on jobs, but on repealing health care reform. Republicans are looking to block the extension of unemployment benefits. President Obama is in South Korea pushing by all accounts to deliver a free trade accord, initially negotiated by George Bush. The co-chairs of the president's bipartisan Deficit Commission have released a draft of their "chairmen's report," calling for raising the retirement age and cutting benefits for most workers in Social Security, and cuts in Medicare.

Voters increasingly believe Washington is controlled by special interests that feed off their tax dollars. They don't think politicians can hear them. And both the White House and the Republican House leadership seem intent on proving that.