Sen. Barack Obama tours a cardiology research lab
Economist and Heartland Institute think tank president Joseph Bast looks at what the recent elections say about the basic ideas and attitudes of the American people today.

Pundits are paid to “interpret” the results of elections. I am not a pundit, but I have watched politicians debate and shape public policies for a quarter century, and I think I can discern some meaning from last week’s elections.

There is no shortage of claims that the Obama win and advances by Democrats in federal and state elections nationwide reveal a shift in public opinion towards the left. Some commentators—such as Henry Manne, dean emeritus of the George Mason University School of Law and by all accounts a brilliant man and solid libertarian thinker—believe “the political direction of the country is now determined for a long time to come, and it is inevitably leftward.” (, October 14th; note that he wrote this before Obama won the election.)

It’s always a big mistake to assume that yesterday’s public policy battles are still today’s, or to overlook evidence of changing public opinions. Think tank leaders are especially prone to these mistakes. But it’s also a mistake to put very much faith in the meaning of close elections, or to believe the spin coming from left-leaning mainstream media about election results. And this year’s election was close, decided almost entirely by increases in the turn-out of black and Hispanic voters who probably did not view their votes as endorsing a liberal versus a conservative agenda.

Since Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, ran to the right of his Republican opponent, if his election has ideological significance (which is probably does not), then it proves just the opposite of what Obama’s liberal supporters claim it does. The election may prove that the only way to win a Presidential election today in America is to call for lower taxes and less government, at least loudly and often if not sincerely.

Obama did so, whereas McCain was a reluctant spokesperson, at best, for conservative and libertarian ideas.

“A Rasmussen poll of October 30 reported that 31 percent of likely voters believed that ‘taxes will go down’ under an Obama administration versus just 11 percent under a McCain administration,” according to Dick Armey in a November 7 Wall Street Journal op-ed. The Republicans’ message that Obama was “too liberal for America,” never expressed very loudly, didn’t stick, partly because the mainstream media refused to echo it, and partly because the public blamed Republicans for out-of-control spending, the recession, and the massive financial bailout.

According to Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth (Wall Street Journal, November 6), a poll of voters in 12 “swing” congressional districts, commissioned by the Club for Growth, showed voters oppose higher taxes, support tax cuts, believe Washington is wasteful, oppose the bailout (and blame Republicans for it), support more domestic oil production, and oppose “card check” (allowing pro-union coercion in union organization votes) by wide margins.

Obama won these districts despite being on the “wrong” side of these public policy debates. That’s evidence that this election was about charisma and a few key issues—the financial crisis and the war—and not about ideology. Exit polls also showed America remains a “center-right” country, with polls showing 44 percent self-identify as moderate, 34 percent as conservatives, and only 22 percent as liberals.

In short, the right’s ideas did remarkably well, to the degree they were subject to a referendum at all, garnering 46 percent of the popular vote despite a weak Republican candidate, a charismatic Democratic candidate, a financial crisis, an unpopular war, and 99 percent of the media “in the tank" for Obama.

There are big fights ahead on health care, energy policy, taxes, trade, and labor policy. But conservatives and libertarians enter every one of these arenas with leads in opinion polls on the key issues at stake.

And importantly, we have a big lead in intellectual credibility on these issues. We’ve been consistent, and consistently right, in opposing nationalized health care, global warming alarmism, high taxes, protectionism, and pro-union rules for decades now. The election didn’t bring any new evidence or ideas to bear on these issues.

The left embraces its positions on these issues in order to build coalitions to win political power, not because research or a principled political philosophy say they are the right views to embrace. This is a crippling deficiency of the left, and  a major long-term strategic advantage of free-market proponents.

Looking ahead, I see Obama and his Democratic allies burning through political capital faster than GM and Ford are burning through their cash reserves as they seek to make quick progress on their top agenda items—and even faster if they digress into social issues such as abortion, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” reparations, and same-sex marriage.

The right needs to make elected officials aware that this is the case, so that a false sense of a public mandate for bigger, rather than smaller, government doesn’t lead to the passage of bad legislation that may prove difficult to repeal once the public’s true views become apparent.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell has said Republicans will work with Obama to “implement his campaign promises of cutting taxes, increasing energy security, reducing spending and easing the burden of an immense and growing national debt.” Columnist Kimberly Strassel (in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, November 7) thinks this means Republicans are correctly “not standing ready to negotiate [meaning, capitulate] on eliminating union secret ballots, nationalizing health care, enacting a climate program, or over-regulating the financial industry.”

This approach would be very good. Right out of the box, Republicans seem to be identifying the right issues to hold Obama accountable on, and which ones they should vigorously oppose.

Political progress, as Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner likes to say, doesn’t progress in a straight line. It zigs and zags, with setbacks and detours along the way. Obama’s election was not a major setback for conservatives or for libertarians. In fact, the next four years may bring some long-overdue clarity to the political debate, with the right’s ideas and messages stronger and more widely embraced thanks to the battle.

—Joseph Bast