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Of course Congressional Democrats realize that Bush's veto of SCHIP is good for Democrats and bad for Republicans politically. But do they really have any idea just how bad it is? I doubt it. And because they don't recognize how bad it is, it won't be. Failure to capitalize on the political opportunity will largely squander it.

For example, it's a little known fact, but Bush was opposed to fully funding SCHIP when he was Governor of Texas, and Democrats failed to make an issue of that in the 2000 campaign. If they failed to fully capitalize on it then, they will surely do so again.

But what is it, exactly, that they will fail to do? Simple: They will fail to show how deeply out of step movement conservatives are with the rest of the country. And more importantly, that gap is growing, as younger voters are even more supportive of social spenging than older voters.

Bush Vs. SCHIP In Texas

In a 1999 article in The Nation, "Running on Empty", Lou Dubose wrote about an episode that should have blown the lid off of all that rhetoric about "compassionate conservatism" (remember that?):

But although Bush may be a good fit for Texas, is he a good fit for the nation? Consider, for a start, his legislative record. As guests of the Black Caucus settled in for lunch, the House was at work on the first piece of his 1999 agenda. "There's a lot of people hurting," the governor had said this past January when he requested that the Senate waive its procedural rules and immediately bring to the floor a $45 million tax break for the oil-and-gas industry. The decline in oil-and-gas prices, Bush argued, erodes the earnings of thousands of "stripper well" owners (most unaccustomed to seeing their annual individual income fall below $100,000). And it threatens the flow of tax revenue the wells provide to a number of Texas school districts.

Bush sure was compassionate, all right!

But then a Democratic lawmaker got a funny idea:

The relief bill for owners of these marginally productive wells was not going to be stopped in the House, the last redoubt of the Texas Democratic Party after Bush's defeat of hopelessly underfunded Land Commissioner Garry Mauro carried Republicans into all twenty-seven statewide elected offices, from attorney general to land commissioner. In fact, House Democrats couldn't even hold their six-seat majority together to limit oil-and-gas tax relief to $200,000 per individual. But a veteran black legislator from Houston did use the debate to direct legislators' attention to another bill, which the governor and his staff were opposing. The oil-and-gas bill is about relief, "about helping people out," Sylvester Turner said, praising perhaps too effusively the tax bill and its Republican sponsors. So he was going to vote for it. Then Turner challenged every representative who was going to cast a vote for the governor's oil-industry bill to vote for adequate funding of the federal/state Children's Health Insurance Program, which would be on the House floor within a few weeks.

Ouch!

And now the details that the American people never heard about in 2000:

While Bush and his staff were pushing the oil-and-gas tax bill through the legislature, they were also fighting to hold the line on health insurance for children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to purchase private health insurance. There are 1.4 million children in Texas who have no health insurance. If eligibility were set at 200 percent of the federal poverty level, more than 500,000 of them would qualify to purchase low-cost insurance policies. Bush insisted, however, that the line be set at 150 percent, eliminating 200,000 children in a state second to California in the number of uninsured children and second to Arizona in the percentage of uninsured children. "It shouldn't even be a fight," said Austin Democratic Representative Glen Maxey, adding that Republican governors in Michigan, California, Florida and New Jersey all agreed to their states' participation in the program. "Christine Whitman is even going to 300 percent," he noted.

That is how the 76th Legislature began in Texas, with the governor flogging a tax break for oil-well owners while limiting a children's health insurance program that brings the state a three-to-one match in federal funds. The two bills illustrate Bush's dual welfare policies: expanding benefits for clients of the corporate welfare state while imposing harsh restrictions on people in need of help. They are also consistent with most of what Bush has set out to achieve since he was elected in 1994.

Bush's whole "compassionate conservative" narrative could have been utterly destroyed if Democrats had simply focused on this deeply telling event. But, of course, they did not.

The Growing "Socialism" Of American Voters

One of the biggest myths in American politics is that Ronald Reagan heralded a great sea-change in American attitudes. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Attitudes toward social spending tend to vary in a cyclical manner, and Ronald Reagan was elected when support had reached a low-point after declining throughout the 1970s. Almost from the moment he took office, support for social spending started trending up again. But even more significantly, there is a long-term trend that voters born in each succeeding decade are more supportive of social spending than those born in the decade before, and this did not change with the election of Ronald Reagan. Those who came of voting age while he was President were more supportive of social spending than voters of any previous decade, and those born while Reagan was president were even more supportive still.

This can be seen at a glance in this chart, based on a combined measure of support for social spending (including the environment) from the General Social Survey:

And in detail in this table:

Combined Attitudes On 6 National Spending Items
(Education, Environment, Health, Welfare, The Conditions Of Blacks, And Problems Of Big Cities)
By Decade of Birth
Spending Attitudes 1880s 1890s 1900s 1910s 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980sTOTAL
R's
Too Little on 4 or more, Net7.116.918.421.022.724.729.832.835.134.035.628.9
Too Little on 1-3, Net50.038.636.040.442.442.044.947.148.749.850.745.0
About Right on All, Net21.411.615.413.812.812.710.78.88.49.57.310.7
Too Much, Net28.632.930.324.722.220.714.611.37.96.76.115.4
TOTAL R's142077521,7362,6793,0814,3425,4323,0471,61542423,328

As you can see, we don't have a large sample size for the early decades, but the overall pattern is consistent. These are truly astonishing figures. Voters who were born while Ronald Reagan was President were far more supportive of social spending than those who elected FDR in 1932. Almost a third of voters who were in their 20s during the Great Depression thought we were spending too much, on balance, on the 6 programs combined above when they were asked decades later by the GSS. But among voters who were in their 20s during Reagan's presidency, such opposition had dropped dramatically to one-fifth of what it had been--6.1 percent vs. 30.3 percent.

Perhaps even more dramatic is what's happened with the ratio between those who want to cut spending, and those who want to increase it most broadly--those saying we shuld increase spending for 4-6 programs. For voters in their 20s during the Great Depression, this ratio was 30.3 to 18.4--more than 3-2--in favor of cutting. But for voters in their 20s this decade, that ratio is 6.1 to 35.6, that's almost 6-1 in favor of broadly increased spending.

This is an epochal change in public attitudes. It's precisely what is meant when we talk about political realignment--at least in terms of fundamental attitudes. The fact that this doesn't show up in our political representation, in the policies our government enacts--that is a sure sign of a political system that is utterly and totally broken.

Originally posted to Paul Rosenberg on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 09:56 AM PDT.

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