Do Americans want more government, or less? That depends on which party you ask … and who’s in the White House. (More)

“The defining issue of our time.”

Yesterday we took a broad look at the 2012 American Values Survey published by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. Today we’ll dig deeper into the central issue of the 2012 election. From his “make or break moment for the middle class” speech in Osawatomie, Kansas last December to his description of the House Republican budget as “thinly-veiled social Darwinism” in April, President Obama has sought to make the 2012 election about what he has called “the defining issue of our time” – government’s role in enabling our economy and protecting our most vulnerable.

Yesterday Mitt Romney seemed to take up that issue as well:

[President Obama] wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.

So there you have it. President Obama and Democrats want government to do more, while Mitt Romney and Republicans want government to do less. Sort of.

“We’re all Keynesians during Republican administrations.”

Thus tweeted David Frum back in May, after Mitt Romney’s interview with Mark Halperin in Time:

Halperin: I want to get to a lot of those, and let’s go to spending, which is a big thing for you, one of the bases of comparison – you say you’d cut spending a lot more than the President has.[…] You have a plan, as you said, over a number of years, to reduce spending dramatically. Why not in the first year, if you’re elected — why not in 2013, go all the way and propose the kind of budget with spending restraints, that you’d like to see after four years in office? Why not do it more quickly?

Romney: Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5%. That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression. So I’m not going to do that, of course.[…]

The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein reached the same conclusion on Monday in making The Keynesian Case for Romney. In his follow-up on Tuesday, Klein ranked the four possible President/Congress combinations in order of how likely each was to pass federal spending to stimulate the economy – (1) Obama/Democrats; (2) Romney/Republicans; (3) Romney/Democrats; (4) Obama/Republicans – Klein added:

I think the only choice on that list that’s even mildly controversial is ranking Romney and a divided Congress above Obama and a divided Congress. But Romney clearly understands and agrees with the need for short-term Keynesian budgeting, and as Jon Chait has written, “Democrats don’t have any history of opportunistically abandoning Keynesian economics when the other party’s neck is on the economic line.”

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, do have a history of opportunistically abandoning Keynesian economics when the other party’s neck is on the economic line.[…]

And it’s not just Romney. After calling Affordable Care Act “socialism” – although it was almost the same bill Republicans proposed in 1993Republicans in Congress are now wondering how to preserve its most popular provisions. As a Florida Democrat told me last week: “Republicans would be fine with ObamaCare … without the Obama.”

What about the Tea Party?

Okay, sure, Mitt Romney may recognize the need for stimulus spending to get the economy moving, and Republicans in Congress may want to keep the ACA’s popular provisions. But won’t the Tea Party erupt in betrayed outrage?

Maybe not, depending on how you interpret data from Pew Research Center’s interactive database for the 2012 American Values Survey:

While Democrats were also more worried about the role of government during the Bush years, the changes are not as dramatic. Taken as a whole, the Pew Research data suggest Frum and Klein are correct. Grover Norquist and Tea Party diehards may want to shrink government no matter what, but many other Republicans are okay with “Big Government” … so long as they’re running it.

Progressive Democratic activists need to emphasize that point when talking with moderate voters like archetypal Fred. The choice between the parties is often framed as “Republican vs. Republican Lite.” But the reality is the opposite. Democrats know we need good government. Republicans think government is only good if they’re in charge.


Happy Saturday!