Why bold ideas backfire in politics

Ramesh Ponnuru has a theory for why bold ideas backfire in politics:

Americans say they want politicians to tackle the big issues and get things done…  Yet almost every time elected officials have tried bold problem-solving in the past 20 years, it has produced a backlash against them. The more ambitious the attempt, the worse the political repercussions have been.

The pattern has persisted now through three administrations.

There has been, however, the rare success:

The successful cases are instructive. In both, a president was playing on the other side’s turf: scaling back an entitlement in the Democrat’s case and expanding one in the Republican’s. And in both cases some of the political benefit was merely the avoidance of pain

The British politician Enoch Powell once remarked that “in the welfare state not to take away is more blessed than to give.” In the 1960s, it may have been possible for a politician to offer voters benefits, seemingly for free, and rise in the polls as a result. But the sense that our government is now overextended may have made such expansion seem less feasible without making retrenchment appealing. People are markedly unhappy with the status quo, but they’re even more fearful of what might take its place.

That’s a coherent set of attitudes built on distrust for the political class in Washington. If voters think politicians have made a lot of messes, they may presume that their solutions will only make things worse. That kind of skepticism is recognizably conservative, but it isn’t ideologically conservative. It creates a high hurdle for ambitious free-market and limited-government reforms just as much as for liberal ones.

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