My campaign for U.S. Congress ended with a smile--not because of the results, which were disappointing, but because of what it achieved. We ran a tough, issue-oriented, well-organized campaign. We out-raised incumbent Democrat Jan Schakowsky 2-to-1 in the third quarter. We raised the Republican vote by nearly 40 percent over 2006, and helped Republicans nearby and statewide by forcing our opponent to defend her seat.
We also sent a powerful message to the Obama administration about the need for stronger U.S. support for Israel. While Israel was never the focus of the campaign, it was an important priority. We led a nationwide push-back against the far-left J Street organization, which supported Schakowsky lavishly. In so doing, we helped Republicans defeat J Street Democrats in races across the country, further marginalizing the group.
Still, losing by a 66-31 margin is tough. Part of the reason we lost was that our opponent ran a relentlessly negative campaign, spending massive amounts of money on mailings falsely accusing me of wanting to “dismantle” Medicare and the like. She also made full use of the advantages of incumbency--dominating media coverage, promising federal dollars to key voting areas, and (corruptly, I believe) intervening in local foreclosures.
Yet even those deplorable tactics cannot, by themselves, explain the result. The reason 9th district voters chose to retain the biggest spender in the U.S. House, in a year when much of the rest of the country rose up in revolt against excessive spending, was that Chicago and its immediate surrounding areas are heavily dependent on that spending. Cities like Chicago are no longer engines of industry, but wards of the government.
Four of the city’s top five employers are government agencies--the U.S. government, the Chicago Public Schools, the City of Chicago, and Cook County. The pattern in many nearby suburbs is similar. The number one issue in our district is job creation, but voters tend to think of jobs as coming from the government. Few think that the money to pay for federal jobs comes out of their own pockets--because for lower earners, it doesn’t.
So people are voting their economic interest--or rather, their short-term interest, since today’s spending cannot be sustained, even if taxes rise. Arguably, higher tax rates will make the problem worse by slowing economic growth and lowering tax revenues. In the long term, we must balance our budgets and pay down our government debt by cutting spending and restoring rapid economic growth to create jobs and raise revenue intake.
Voters know that, too--which is why Illinois sent a Republican to the Senate but voted a Democrat back into the governor’s mansion. In fact, nationwide, voters created divided government at every level. Democrats won contested governorships in states like Illinois and California, that are in deep financial trouble--in many cases, re-electing the people who caused the problem. Yet Republicans won a staggering majority in the U.S. House.
Here’s the reason this happened. Voters now have a clear idea of what the two parties stand for: Democrats stand for spending, and Republicans stand for cutting spending. The spending that affects most people’s lives most directly is state and local spending. While people know that spending can’t continue as it has, people are nervous about what cutting it would mean, especially when there are few private sector opportunities.
So voters elected Republicans to Washington who will cut spending, and stop bailouts to state governments, while we also elected Democrats to Springfield and Sacramento who will try to protect the programs many of us have (unfortunately) come to depend on. There is an inherent, and possibly fatal, contradiction here: excessive state deficits are killing local economies, further depriving state governments of the revenue they need.
To avoid bankruptcy, state governments are going to have to make some hard choices, all of them bad. In many states, taxes will go up--not necessarily because they need to, but because that is what Democrats prefer to spending cuts. That will only prolong the agony. Elsewhere, and eventually everywhere, spending will be cut and services may suffer. There may be federal help, but it will come with severe austerity conditions.
It is good--not just for Republicans, but for the nation--for the hardest choices to be made by the Democrats who created them, and who deferred them for so long. In a way, our election result may function like the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that now governs the United Kingdom, forcing the people most ideologically opposed to spending cuts to be the ones to explain to their constituencies why cuts are needed.
In fact, the American result is better. The UK has slashed defense spending, but with Republicans in charge of the House, the one area of federal spending that won’t be cut (much) is defense. The GOP understands that national security is the most critical function of the federal government, and that we are still fighting a war against jihadist radicals that must be won. Our federalist system--flawed, but beautiful--wins again.
I am personally optimistic about our nation’s economic future, even though we are going to endure some very hard times over the next two years, and we face huge challenges. Interest rates are low, and Americans remain the most productive people in the world. If Republicans can stop and roll back the excessive over-regulation of our economy, new businesses will start and grow. More people will find jobs--slowly at first, but surely.
There is still much more to do that cannot be done unless Republicans control the White House and the governor’s mansions. We must repeal ObamaCare, which is a financial, medical, and constitutional disaster. We must restructure governments in our most indebted states to restore the economic vitality enjoyed by previous generations. All of that is still possible in future elections. In fact, Republicans may to continue to win big.
Massive gains in state legislatures will give Republicans control of re-districting in many states, strengthening the party for the next decade. The 2012 election will offer up more Democrat-held seats in the U.S. Senate than Republicans ones. President Obama may be vulnerable to a capable challenger. And the Democrat governors who were elected in big-debt states this year will be unpopular in 2014 after four years of budget battles.
All of this is only possible and useful if we maintain the pressure to cut spending. That means the Tea Party has a more important role than ever. In peri-urban and rural areas, the Tea Party must continue to replace Democrat incumbents and hold Republicans accountable. In urban areas, the Tea Party won’t win many elections--but it can help voters elect better Democrats, ones who understand that big government has its limits.
In districts like our own, the Tea Party has the potential to become a powerful opposition force. Upon victory, my opponent crowed: “With our 2 to 1 victory, we sent the clearest of messages to Tea Party-endorsed candidates and their right-wing agenda: ‘The soil of the 9th Congressional District of Illinois is no place to put down roots. Don’t even think about it!’” Be warned, Ms. Schakowsky: win or lose, the Tea Party is here to stay.