Referendum on Competence

Good luck, Democrats: The voters chose you because they want less government and more results.

Democrats across the country could barely contain their glee after Election Day, when their party swept to control of both the House and Senate in a stunning electoral triumph.

One must imagine, however, that after the initial euphoria wore off, a sobering reality set in. Because voters sent a simple message in the election: We're disgusted with the way this government is being run. And changing that mind-set is difficult to do from Capitol Hill.

Even before the voting took place, citizens were making their position clear. A CNN poll in late October found that 54 percent of Americans thought government was trying to do too much, while only 37 percent thought the feds should try to do more to solve the country's problems. More than 70 percent of those surveyed correctly concluded that the size of government had increased in the previous four years.

Democrats had spent the weeks before the election doing what Democrats do: Promising to use the power of the federal government to attack the nation's problems. Democratic candidates promised to add tens of billions of dollars in spending for defense, homeland security and education. But that approach could only appeal to the 37 percent of bigger government types who presumably make up the Democratic base.

The rest of the voters who pulled the lever for Democrats simply were voicing their disdain for government mismanagement.

In a post-election analysis, political prognosticator extraordinaire (and Atlantic Media colleague of mine) Charlie Cook did the math this way: The war in Iraq, he wrote, was the biggest factor in the Democratic wave, accounting for about 70 percent of the vote total. "The public's disapproval of Republicans' handling of a jumble of other issues-ranging from scandals, immigration, and federal spending and deficits, to stem-cell research, the Terri Schiavo case, and Hurricane Katrina-produced the wave's other 30 percent," he added.

Take another look at that list. There's very little there in the way of Bush administration policy initiatives. That's because voters didn't have a problem with many of those-even politically contentious ones that Cook didn't list, like Social Security reform.

That doesn't mean voters didn't care about pressing national concerns. In exit polls, 60 percent of voters said national issues mattered more to them than local ones in the elections. But the biggest of those issues wasn't any particular policy. Nor was it the nation's economic performance. Nearly as many people said the economy was in "excellent" or "good" shape (49 percent) as said it was "not good" or "poor" (50 percent).

No, the issue was simply the performance of government's leaders in managing the tasks set before them-starting with the war in Iraq, but including a host of other efforts.

And on the competence issue, voters' judgment was swift and severe. In addition to the 30 percent of voters who said they were dissatisfied with President Bush, another 29 percent said they were downright angry. Congress didn't fare any better, with a 61 percent disapproval rating from voters. Coupled with the pre-election polling data, that adds up to a simple message: You're trying to do too much, and you're not doing it very well.

Of course, even in the too-much-government camp few voters actually want government to stop doing things it's already doing. Mostly, they just want better results, and they don't want to pay any more for them. They want, in short, what President Clinton promised them in his reinventing government crusade: a government that "works better and costs less." And that's the toughest of challenges to meet.

Over the next two years, President Bush would prefer to bring his administration to a close by burnishing his foreign policy credentials and pushing landmark legislation. The Democrats would rather focus on the policy items on their agenda, such as raising the minimum wage, making college tuition tax-deductible, and pushing biofuels.

Instead, they're going to have to do something that neither really likes to do: Focus on improving the management of government. And they're going to have to find a way to work together to do it.

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