A bad omen for business

Much has been written by pundits and pontificated by television’s horde of talking heads about the impact and the import of last week’s elections.

Much has been written by pundits and pontificated by television’s horde of talking heads about the impact and the import of last week’s elections.

Historically, off-year gubernatorial elections are not good predictors of midterm congressional elections. Still, the results this year, especially in Virginia, offer comfort to Democrats. Not only did Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) carry traditionally Republican Northern Virginia, but also Gov. Mark Warner (D) showed the power of his appeal to voters. One could even argue that Warner was the real winner of that election, getting a huge boost to his presidential plans.

But the real message from the elections and some recent polling is that American business, especially big business, is in grave danger of losing many of its policy gains made under President Bush and to a lesser degree under President Clinton. American voters are having a change of heart when it comes to taxes, regulation of business and a new willingness to trust the government with their future. Just not this government. Both the White House and the Congress get the lowest approval ratings since at least 1994.

On Nov. 1, Colorado voters turned down the offer of having surplus tax collections returned to them in favor of spending that money on schools and roads. A few years ago, and in a better economy, voters would have grabbed at a tax refund. This year Coloradans opted to let the government invest in their future.

In Washington state, a gas-tax increase narrowly passed in the Legislature earlier this year. Opponents quickly launched a repeal campaign, and the measure went to the voters on the November ballot.

Concerned that the state infrastructure had deteriorated, voters supported the tax. Even in a bad economy and with soaring gas prices, voters were willing to take on an increased tax burden.

In California a year ago, voters approved two huge bond measures to bail the state out of financial trouble. This year those voters turned down a proposal to limit state spending and allow the governor to cut programs to match the state’s income.

Now comes a new poll from Democracy Corps, a group with a liberal bias but using a trustworthy polling firm with a long track record, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Most of the data also tracks with other published polls showing, for example, that a thin one-third of voters wants to continue the direction of the Bush administration and only a quarter wants more of the same from the Congress.

The most interesting findings, and the ones that should most concern business and K Street, have to do with healthcare and energy. Voters are extremely concerned about the quality, availability and cost of healthcare. The pollsters reminded voters that Clinton had proposed sweeping healthcare reforms a dozen years ago and asked if the country would be better or worse off had they been adopted. By 53 percent to 28 percent, voters said we would be better off. In what is good news for one presidential candidate, a split sample was also reminded that first lady Hillary Clinton was in charge of the healthcare initiative then.” The “better off” number increased to 56 percent wishing they now had Clinton Care.

While it is unlikely that a complex proposal like the one proposed by Clinton would survive another Harry & Louise-like attack, it is clear that voters are ready for significant change in the healthcare system. Health insurers, pharmaceutical companies and hospitals are all vulnerable to dramatic proposals from Democrats in the campaign ahead.

There is also strong demand for a new energy policy. Voters strongly support stricter fuel-efficiency standards, investment in technology for alternative energy and incentives for hybrid cars. Support was nearly as strong for a windfall profits tax on oil companies to support alternative energy research.

Since 1994, business groups have relied heavily on Republican legislators and lobbyists to achieve their goals. But after years of general voter support of tax cuts, reduced regulation and smaller government, there is plenty of evidence the tide is turning in America. The only Republican messages that resonated in the Democracy Corps poll included some appeal to healthcare reform and a new energy policy, suggesting they must talk less about moral values and more about pocketbook issues to survive.

If Democrats can craft a simple message that speaks to voter concerns, the business community may wake up to find it has few friends on the Hill.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail:
bgoddard@thehill.com