November 6, 2009
"Contain the scope of the debate": This has been a key element of the Democratic strategy to enact Big Government health reform. As long as voters perceive the issue as a nice, neat, four-cornered proposal to expand health coverage, the liberals who control Congress will win. Polls confirm that Americans want Congress to expand, even guarantee, access to health care for all.
But when the parameters of this debate expand beyond health care, conservatives have a fighting chance. Once voters pick up the scent of other issues -- a whiff of higher taxes and deficits, more debt passed on to our kids and grandkids, a loss of personal freedom, stagnant wages and job insecurity, profound moral concerns relating to life, not to mention an unprecedented intrusion of government into our lives -- liberals finds themselves on their heels.
Tuesday's election results suggest that America's normally quiescent and politically independent middle class may have reached its limit. Burghers quietly lit torches and lifted pitchforks in precisely the sort of jurisdictions that provided the political oomph behind the Democrats' successes in 2006 and 2008. Democratic candidates either lost or underperformed in Northern Virginia, Westchester County (N.Y.), suburban Philadelphia, and throughout that most suburban of all states, New Jersey.
Crucial to this turnaround was the appeal to independents of the two Republican gubernatorial candidates. In both Virginia and New Jersey, the GOP carried these voters by two-to-one margins. Why? My guess is that it's all about taxes, debt, and too much government.
These areas, after all, rank among the most heavily taxed and regulated jurisdictions in America. According to data compiled by the Tax Foundation, 15 of the 25 counties with the heaviest property-tax burdens in America are in New Jersey. And Virginia's Arlington, Loudoun, and Fairfax counties are not far behind.
New Jersey governor-elect Chris Christie won overwhelming majorities or held his own in all 15 of those counties. Meanwhile, Virginia governor-elect Bob McDonnell did well in Arlington and Loudoun, and actually carried true-blue Fairfax county by 51 percent to 49 percent.
Excessive taxation isn't a problem just at the county level. In New Jersey, upper-middle-class voters also shoulder one of the heaviest state-income-tax burdens. The Garden State's top marginal tax rate now exceeds 10 percent.
Despite the onerous tax burden, New Jersey's total state debt has quadrupled over the past 15 years. It stands at $35 billion. The state's budget deficit for this year stands at $8 billion and counting. Little wonder that 32 percent of New Jersey's voters told the exit pollsters the economy was their greatest concern. Another 26 percent fingered property taxes.
So what does this all portend for the health-reform debate in Washington?
If overhauling our health system exudes the odor of bigger, more expensive government, the odds of passage plummet in the face of these growing middle-class concerns. When it comes to their own political survival, politicians possess impeccable radar. Last night's election returns should set off those radars for dozens of Democrats who represent these overextended and financially insecure suburban families. One can almost hear those backroom conversations. "I still want to see a health-reform bill enacted," they will assure their leaders on Capitol Hill, "but can't we at least dial it back a bit?"
This will complicate things for Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid. How will they find a politically acceptable mix of new taxes to finance such an ambitious plan? The short answer is that they can't. Whether they finance their plan with a tax on "Cadillac" health plans, drugs, and wheelchairs or impose massive new taxes on the "rich," it will hit the family budgets in these middle-class communities. Memo to lawmakers who represent these districts: You will need to identify other ways to pay for the trillions in new health "benefits" you want to bestow on us, or find a more fiscally manageable way to skin the health-care cat.
Senior citizens are the other politically significant voter group whose behavior last night should set off those radars. The two Democratic gubernatorial candidates won only 40 percent of the senior vote. Memo to lawmakers: This may not be the most opportune time to further enfeeble the fiscally stressed Medicare program by shifting hundreds of billions of dollars out of it to finance yet another unmanageable federal entitlement program.
The common thread here is that our friends and neighbors in purple and blue suburban communities are giving the big thumbs down to "robust" health reform, "robust" budgets, "robust" tax rates, "robust" anything. Big is bad. They're telling lawmakers at all levels of government to get their fiscal houses in order first.
Mike Franc is Vice President for Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in National Review Online