Election Lessons Learned: Don't Abandon Your Base

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I was in Nicaragua earlier this week covering the elections there, and on the long trip back (on OUR Election Day, as it happened) I got to thinking: What could the elections in Nicaragua possibly have to do with the elections here?

The answer could be summed up in an old political maxim: Always hold your base.

In Nicaragua, the former dictator Daniel Ortega won with a plurality of just 38 percent of the votes, even though most Nicaraguans voted against him. It was the division in the opposition —the loss of their base — that led to his victory. The party in power had become corrupt and had lost the respect of many party loyalists. This led to a split and the emergence of an alternative candidate, who came in second with 29 percent. The established party candidate, who many thought was too close to corruption, came in with 26 percent. So at least 55 percent of the voters were adamantly opposed to Ortega, but saw their single message divided by selfish interests.

Ortega, on the other hand, always knew he could rely on a base of party loyalists, who would vote for him no matter what. That base (he estimated before the election) was about 35 percent. The rest he could beg, borrow or steal, and from my observations, he did all three. So with the opposition divided, he sailed in with 38 percent. Sweet.

Now there are plenty of differences between the elections in Nicaragua and those here. Theirs was really a choice between two systems. Ours was a choice between two parties that basically believe in the same system. But the key similarity is that both elections were about holding your base.

Republicans used to stand for the party of limited government and fiscal responsibility. That was the one point of unity that all Republicans could rally around, no matter how much they differed on foreign policy or social issues. That core message of limited government, though, has become washed down by a spending frenzy under George W. Bush that's unlike anything since LBJ’s Great Society programs in the 1960s.

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Yes, 9/11 happened on this President’s watch, and he had to respond with huge new outlays in domestic and foreign spending. But that explains only part of the 49 percent increase in federal outlays since President Bush took over in 2001. Most of that 49 percent increase was on domestic spending totally unrelated to defense, including the largest new government entitlement program-the prescription drug program-in recent memory.

True, the effect of this extra spending was buffered by a tremendous increase in revenue following the Bush tax-rate cuts. If ever there was vindication of the idea that people work harder and create more for everyone if they are allowed to keep a greater percent of what they earn, this was it. Probably the most under-reported story of the year was the announcement in September that the largest two-year increase in federal tax revenue in U.S. history took place in the two years following enactment of the Bush tax-rate cuts. This helped cover the costs of increased spending and significantly lowered the federal deficit. But it does not excuse the tremendous expansion of government under Bush’s watch. His people remind us that it’s the Congress that actually spends the money. But President Bush’s legacy on spending is that, so far, he has not vetoed a single spending bill that has passed his desk. That has infuriated and alienated his base.

When a party loses its moral authority among its base, it has lost its most precious asset. Moral authority is one of the few political notions that are not relative. Either you have it or you don’t. Perhaps the President still has that authority on issues of security. But on the key issue of fiscal responsibility, the one issue around which the base of the Republican Party could unite, that moral authority has vanished.

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David Asman is the host of "Forbes on FOX" which airs on the FOX News Channel, Saturdays at 11 a.m. ET.