Every successful political coalition in American history has divided on some issues. The real question is not whether a political coalition can achieve unanimity but whether it can subsume its divisions beneath a unifying idea. The Republican Party now has such a potential unifying idea: reduction in the size and responsibilities of the federal government. If Republicans can maintain voter support for this central goal, their other divisions (with the possible exception of a Supreme Court or congressional vote eliminating the legal right to abortion) are unlikely to rupture their coalition. That reality frames one central question now facing the GOP: Will voters support the reduction of the government as much in the specific as they do in the abstract?
On the subject of government, American public opinion is not so much divided as contradictory. Large percentages distrust government, oppose regulation and want to balance the budget. But there is also overwhelming support for Medicare, environmental protection, spending on education and an instinct to look toward government when things go wrong in society. Washington is blamed for doing too much and then for not doing enough when planes crash or rivers choke on sludge. President Clinton faced one side of this paradox: Though his election clearly signaled a public desire for greater attention to domestic problems, in office he collided with mountainous skepticism that the expansion of government was the route to progress. Republicans now face the opposite risk: that general public support for less government will not translate into endorsement of their specific reductions in spending, taxes and regulation.
From any poll, suspicion and hostility toward the federal government roars like a primal scream. For the groups in the anti-government coalition, that hostility is an ideological proposition, but for most Americans it is not. The principal reason government is unpopular, polls suggest, is because people consider it ineffective and wasteful, not because they believe that government should not try to improve education, clean the environment or provide a social safety net. In polling, far more people support the goal of reforming government than simply reducing it, and many specific government initiatives, such as Medicare and environmental protection, are as popular as government itself is unpopular.
Yet these sentiments are only part of the story. The collapse of faith in the federal government looms over these expressions of support for its individual functions. Support for individual regulatory initiatives can mask the extent to which voters have reached a conclusion that government is too large, overreaching and intrusive. The idea of shifting authority over social programs from Washington to state governments, as most Republicans advocate, also draws substantial support in survey after survey, and even the resistance evident in polls to cuts in individual spending programs looks different when viewed through a wider lens. Democrats are often mesmerized by poll numbers showing public support for greater spending on individual social programs. But most often the controlling dynamic is public skepticism that such programs would accomplish their intended goals.
Together, these closely balanced and contradictory opinions suggest a broad social consensus toward restraining the role of government--but with enormous differences remaining over what that means. Absent a major economic downturn that overshadows all else, those differences are likely to be the central focus of the presidential and congressional campaigns in 1996--and probably campaigns into the next century.
Compared to its high tide in November, 1994, the GOP has clearly lost ground on most measures of public support over the past year. Today, it is not difficult to imagine Clinton holding the White House in 1996 in a backlash against Republicans moving too far or too fast to eliminate government programs and regulatory protections that most Americans support.
Still, the GOP's central mission of limiting government is large enough to occupy its imagination and unify its core supporters. In contrast, continued ideological and racial divisions among the Democrats inhibit their ability to present a clear and compelling alternative to the GOP vision. While the Democrats flounder, several distinct groups of voters are clearly realigning into a lasting attachment with the GOP, most importantxamong them born-again Christians, small business owners and white southerners. Despite all of Clinton's efforts to change his party's image on questions of values, millions of Americans still identify Democrats with the forces of cultural dissolution and permissiveness while associating Republicans with standards, order and individual responsibility.