This report focuses on what Americans want from government reform as the nation prepares for a brass knuckles 2020 presidential campaign. The report extends Paul C. Light’s 2015 analysis of rising public demand for very major reform of government and is built on four surveys conducted during the last four years.
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According to Light’s most recent survey in November 2019, President Donald Trump is betting his presidency on the plurality of Republicans who support very major government reform and a smaller government that provides fewer services. These “dismantlers,” as Light calls them, are united by a deep distrust of government and a sense that it is doing a poor job of addressing national missions such as strengthening the economy.
Light argues in turn that the 2020 Democratic candidates are focusing on the 20 percent of the party faithful who believe the federal government needs only some reform and favor a bigger government that delivers more services. These “expanders,” as Light labels them, are also far more likely than other Democrats to say the federal government should do better on issues such as helping people out of poverty and providing access to health care, and to discount the amount of waste and inefficiency in government.
Based on the current demand for reform, Light argues that the eventual Democratic nominee cannot win the White House without securing the 47 percent of Democrats who believe the federal government needs very major reform and prefer bigger government that delivers more services. Although “rebuilders” prefer a strong government role in many areas, they are more likely than the expanders to distrust the federal government in Washington, believe it is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, express anger and frustration with the federal government, and say the federal government is almost always wasteful and inefficient. They are also twice as likely as the expanders to say that the federal government is doing only a fair or poor job running its programs.
As Light warns, the Democratic nominee must either embrace major government reform with an inventory of large-scale items or force the party’s rebuilders to choose between (1) a Republican president who rarely misses an opportunity to criticize the federal government but favors a smaller government, or (2) a Democratic candidate who promises a much bigger government that delivers many more services but has little to say about making govern-ment and its programs work. Given this choice, the Democratic rebuilders may conclude that Trump is the safer choice for better government. This is the rebuilder’s dilemma in choosing the next president.