Will the GOP’s Strength at the Local Level Turn Into Strength at the Federal Level?

In a recent National Review article Jonah Goldberg points out the gap between the GOP’s strength at the local level around the nation and its weaknesses at the federal level. Given that local level strength, will the federal level weakness be turned into strength once a new crop of political leaders rise through the ranks? Was Obama’s victory an anomaly based on temporary historical factors that will not translate into future victories for the Democrats at the federal level? Are the factors that drive voters’ decisions different enough at the federal level than the local level to account for this gap?

The Republicans are doomed. Conservatism is over. President Obama is conducting a mop-up operation at this point.

That’s the basic consensus in places like New York City; Washington, D.C.; and other citadels of blue America.

And let’s be fair, liberals have every reason to gloat — a little. The GOP has its troubles. Long-term demographic trends; often-irrational animosity from Hollywood, the media, and academia; a thumbless grasp of the culture on the part of many Republicans: All of these things create a headwind for the party and the broader conservative movement.

But here’s the weird part. That’s all true of presidential politics, but less so when it comes to state politics or even other federal races. In 2010, the GOP had its best performance in congressional races since 1938.

In North Carolina, a state that is supposed to represent the trends benefitting Democrats — it’s attracting liberal northern transplants, immigrants, high-tech workers, etc. — the GOP now has veto-proof majorities in the state house and senate. Last November, North Carolina became the 30th state with a GOP governor.

What gives?

There are a lot of possible explanations that are not mutually exclusive. Obama is more popular than his party. Mitt Romney was less popular than the ideas he had such a hard time expressing. Presidential electorates are different.

This last one is definitely true when you compare who voted in 2010 and who voted in 2012. The 2010 electorate was older and whiter. The Obama coalition of 2012 included younger voters, minorities, and so-called “low-information voters.”

No matter the merits of these observations, they don’t fully explain why Republicans are doing so well on the policy front. In states as diverse as Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, Michigan, New Jersey, Texas, and a half-dozen others, Republicans have been implementing impressive — even miraculous — reforms.

In pro-Obama Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker beat back a historic attack from organized labor. And Michigan — Michigan! — recently became a right-to-work state, which I’m pretty sure is mentioned in the AFL-CIO’s bylaws as a sign of the end times.

I think an overlooked part of the story is the fact that Americans tend to see federal and local governments differently. At the local level, people seem to have a better grasp that it’s their tax dollars at work. They are far more sensitive to tax increases and more easily outraged by spending boondoggles. They understand the importance of sustainable economic growth.

This fact benefits Republicans, although state-level Democrats tend to be more fiscally responsible at the local level as well. (Rahm Emanuel is far more fiscally responsible as Chicago’s mayor than he ever was as Obama’s chief of staff.)

Meanwhile, what gets Republicans elected at the local level gets them in trouble at the federal level. Again, there are many reasons for this. But I think one of them is that we’ve come to see the federal government as some sort of mystical entity empowered to right all of the wrongs in society. If there’s a problem, there “should” be a federal response, the costs or feasibility of that response be damned.

While Romney’s infamous riff about the “47 percent” was profoundly flawed, the simple reality is that millions of people who do, in fact, pay federal income taxes do not care about those tax dollars in the same way they care about their local tax dollars. This is true of people who get more from the federal government than they pay in, but it’s also true for millions of affluent voters as well.

Our presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, talk about their “visions” for America, as if being a president requires you to impose some quasi-religious vision on the country.

But the Democrats are simply better at talking about government in spiritual terms. Indeed, such testifying is Obama’s one indisputable gift. Democrats talk about the federal government doing things we’d want God to do if God dabbled in public policy. They use the logic of religion, which holds that there is a unitary and seamless nature to all good things, and therefore no good thing government does should come at the expense of some other good thing government might do. And, worst of all, they castigate anyone who opposes more spending on, say, “the children” or “the environment” as morally retrograde and “against children” and “against the environment.”

The challenge for Republicans is to convince the American people that the government isn’t magic, and that all of its money is your money, its debts your debts. I don’t think the GOP is doomed, but America might be if Americans remain unconvinced too much longer.

Editor’s note: the bold highlight was an editorial addition and not a part of Goldberg’s original article.  It was an attempt to call attention to a factor that far too many Republicans overlook.