Mellman: Is the era of government back?

Like most Americans, and nearly everyone on my side of the partisan divide, I’m thrilled with the agenda President Biden has laid out and pleased with the high levels of public support it has generated.

Support for his COVID-19 relief bill ranged from 61 percent to 78 percent, depending on the poll, with many surveys showing 70 percent or more in favor.

Between 45 percent and 68 percent approve of his infrastructure plan, with most surveys reporting substantial majorities backing the proposal.

Some commentators suggest these findings herald a fundamentally new and more expansive view of the role of government. Bolstering this claim is exit poll data showing that 58 percent believe “government should do more to solve problems,” while only 42 percent say “government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals.”

Because such questions seem to go beyond the policy prescriptions of the moment to tap fundamental values, they are often interpreted as more deep-seated, long-lasting attitudes that structure responses to a host of more transitory policy issues.

I know that mistake because I’ve made it.

In a September 2008 New York Times op-ed I argued “Voters not only express a desire for change in the coming election, they themselves have changed, and their shifting values are likely to alter the course of future policy debates … Public commitments have shifted, most profoundly on the role of government.”

“Americans,” I wrote, “who used to be wary of government involvement are now calling for more of it.”

I cited data from questions similar to those posed by the exit polls which revealed a net shift of some 40 points in a pro-government direction. Voters were much more concerned “the federal government will not do enough to help ordinary people deal with the problems they face” than about the federal government trying to do too much.

It was absolutely true, confirmed by multiple polls, until it wasn’t.

In less than a year, narrow pluralities were again complaining about too much government.

Several lessons emerge from this cautionary tale:

First, is a lesson the Biden administration has already wisely internalized — get what you can, as soon as you can. Take advantage of opportunities to do good when they present themselves. Things change. Attitudes here today may not stick around tomorrow.

Second, just because we call an attitude a value, doesn’t mean it’s enduring or immutable. The fact that a question appears to reference a level of belief deeper or broader than the issue of the day is no guarantee it’s stable. Some things we call values are quite fluid.

Third, the link between “values” and issue positions can be tenuous. There’s a tendency to assume values are prime movers, dictating issue positions; that voters carry around some underlying set of principles and react to the issues of the day based on that foundational belief system.

It’s true for some, some of the time, but not for most people and certainly not always.

Writing about ideology — that broadest and deepest set of values, we presume — political psychologists Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe conclude “ideological identification is primarily an effect, not a cause, of a person’s political views.”

Indeed, sometimes the causal arrow runs in the direction opposite of what we might expect. In some instances, we change our values in response to the issues of the day.

Without rehearsing all the evidence, it’s likely that attitudes on the role of government did not determine everyone’s view of ObamaCare — which people disliked before they liked — but that some changed their view on the role of government because of their views on ObamaCare.

Some who professed support for government solutions nonetheless objected to ObamaCare and decided they wanted smaller government as a result.

Democrats should be delighted Americans support the ambitious agenda President Biden has articulated, but no one should assume, as I once did, that minds have been changed for good.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.

Tags Big Government coronavirus relief COVID-19 Joe Biden public support for big government values

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