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Americans Want the Honor of 'Earned Success'

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Monday, August 08, 2011

Why aren't voters moving to the left, toward parties favoring bigger government, during what increasingly looks like an economic depression? That's a question I've asked, and one that was addressed with characteristic thoughtfulness by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in The New York Times last week.

Greenberg argues that voters agree with Democrats on issues but don't back them on policy because they don't trust government to carry it out fairly. I think he overstates their agreements on policies: They may favor "investment in education" until they figure out that it actually means political payoffs to teachers' unions.

But his larger point rings true. He points out that "the growth of self-identified conservatives" began during the fall 2008 debate over the TARP legislation supported by George W. Bush, Barack Obama and John McCain. The voters' take: "Government works for the irresponsible, not the responsible."

That was the complaint as well of Rick Santelli in his February 2009 "rant" calling for a tea party. Santelli was complaining about mortgage modification programs that used prudent homeowners' tax money to subsidize those who had made imprudent decisions.

But Greenberg's diagnosis is stronger than his prescriptions. To reduce the power of "special interest lobbyists," he calls for stronger campaign finance regulation. But as Walter Russell Mead points out in his American Interest blog, that's unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Mead makes an even stronger point when he writes that "for large numbers of voters, the professional classes who staff the bureaucracies, foundations and policy institutes in and around government are themselves a special interest." One, he adds, that acts "only to protect their turf and fatten their purses."

This helps explain why majorities continue to oppose the Obama Democrats' stimulus package and Obamacare. Democratic elites thought these laws would be seen as helping ordinary people. But they aren't.

They are seen as special interest legislation that helps politically favored constituencies. Which, as my Washington Examiner colleague Timothy Carney has documented, is an accurate view.

I think the larger mistake the Obama Democrats have made is that they suppose ordinary voters want government to channel more money in their direction.

They're not the only ones to take this view. In the Bush years, thoughtful conservatives -- David Frum, Ross Douthat and Reiham Salam -- noted that most people's real incomes had not been rising and wrote books calling for government policies to bolster their incomes.

But ordinary Americans don't want money as much as they want honor. They want what the chance to achieve what American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks calls "earned success."

The housing policies that brought about the financial collapse, supported by almost all Democrats and many Republicans, including George W. Bush, promised something different.

They treated the old policies of requiring 20 percent down payments on houses as antiquated and bigoted. Mortgages with no money down and looser credit standards would enable Hispanics and blacks especially to accumulate wealth as others had in the past.

We know now that the old standards of creditworthiness made sense. Saving enough for a 20 percent down payment was difficult for young homebuyers. But once they did so, meeting the monthly payment was easier, and any temporary drop in home prices didn't wipe out their equity. When home prices increased over the years, they had reason to believe they had earned their success.

"The progressive ideal of administrative cadres leading the masses toward the light has its roots in a time when many Americans had an eighth-grade education or less," Mead writes. That is still the mindset of the Obama Democrats. Ordinary people are treated as victims who need government programs like Obamacare to help them out.

But Americans prefer to see themselves as doers rather than victims. They do not see themselves, as the masses in the Progressive Era a century ago may have done, as helpless victims of large corporations and financial interests.

They want public policies that enable them to earn success, and they resent policies that channel money to the politically well positioned or to those who have not made decisions and taken actions necessary for earned success. They want to be empowered, not patronized.

That's why voters here and, as Greenberg notes, in other advanced countries are rejecting policies that give more power to the mandarins who run government and provide less leeway for ordinary people to work for earn success.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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