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Voters Oppose 'Transformative' Policies, Want Reform of Dysfunctional Bureaucracies

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Do Americans really want transformative change? The evidence accumulates that they don't.

That is a problem for the Joe Biden Democrats, whose policies are premised on the proposition that they do. But do they, really?

Yes, you can find polls in which majorities say they approve of policies substantially different from those currently in effect. "Wouldn't it be great" poll questions holding out attractive goals while silent on the downsides tend to invite positive responses.

For months, Democrats have been citing such poll results to promote the individual components of their $3.5 trillion Build Back Better legislation. If you put everything up to the kitchen sink in a proposal, the whole thing should be popular, right?

Well, no, it turns out. Just as it turns out that, despite polling showing support for health care reform, Obamacare proved unpopular while Barack Obama was president and Democrats had majorities -- big majorities -- in both houses of Congress.

Likewise, despite polling showing opposition to Obamacare, its repeal proved unpopular while Donald Trump was president and Republicans had (smaller) majorities in both houses of Congress.

In this same way, BBB is unpopular now that Joe Biden is president and Democrats have (miniscule) majorities in both houses of Congress.

This suggests the explanation that most voters are actually pretty content with the major public policies in place. They don't want changes in Social Security despite strong arguments that current policies are unsustainable over time. President George W. Bush's attempts at reform went nowhere. President Trump wanted no part of them, and no other Republican leader will back them any time soon.

They don't want major changes in the federal tax structure. Starting in the 1990s, incoming Democratic and Republican administrations have jiggled the top income tax rate and capital gains rates up and down, but only within a narrow range.

The result is that the United States continues to have a more progressive national tax structure than European democracies. And there's no chance that we'll ditch that for some version of the less progressive value-added taxes that finance European welfare states.

Why do voters turn out to be allergic to policy changes that many intellectually serious experts advocate? Because current policies are in line with widely shared values. The affluent should pay a larger share of taxes, but not too much. Generous payments to retirees are justified because they have paid in while they were working. There's a connection between effort and reward.

A corollary is that those who don't work are much less entitled. That's one reason why BBB's extension of the Biden temporary child tax credit proved far less popular than all those poll questions suggested, as a New York Times "Upshot" piece admitted.

That credit, payable in cash monthly, would have reversed the 1996 federal welfare reform that limited payments to parents who don't work, as blogger Mickey Kaus explained. That strikes most voters as wrong.

Free pre-K, slated for $215 billion in BBB, polls positively. But an impressive, recent, 50-year study shows it actually has negative effects on children.

Just as Americans oppose repealing 1990s welfare reform, they also lament moving away from that decade's other great policy success: policing reform. They're dismayed with the record increases in violent crime since the Black Lives Matter "mostly peaceful" riots of summer 2020.

They're displeased as well with the surge of illegal immigration, which has reversed the dropoffs that occurred due to the 2007-09 recession and the Trump administration's policies. Also, last year's surge of inflation has reversed the price stability in place since the early 1980s.

Americans dismayed at how these things are spinning out of control aren't seeking "transformation." They're looking for restoration of a status quo with which, despite their grumbling to pollsters, they've been basically satisfied.

And with some reason. U.S. per capita gross domestic product is well ahead of most other advanced countries (except oil-rich Norway and financial centers Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Ireland). This is true even in the poorest states. West Virginia's per capita GDP is higher than that of Britain, New Zealand or even Japan.

What voters have become increasingly upset with, especially since the onset of COVID, is the subpar performance of long-established institutions. Public health agencies, especially the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have performed abysmally. Recently disclosed emails show agency heads Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins conspiring to suppress evidence that the coronavirus came from a lab leak in Wuhan, China.

Rotting bureaucracies and anatomy-covering bureaucrats are commonplace in long-successful and thus complacent societies. Voters want politicians to stop talking about transforming policies they like and start working to reform dysfunctional bureaucracies that are no longer fit for purpose.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.


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See Other Commentaries by Michael Barone.

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