The era of big government, having returned with a vengeance in the massive infusion of taxpayers’ cash into the banking system, has accomplished something no political candidate in memory could achieve. It has gotten liberals and conservatives to agree on something.

The rough outline of the accord is this: The prospect of Democrat Barack Obama’s election to the White House, coupled with robust gains in the number of seats held by Democrats on Capitol Hill, would be the historical endnote to the Reagan era. To liberal prognosticators reveling in the moment, this could be the “realignment” election they have yearned for since Ronald Reagan, with his philosophy of lower taxes, smaller government and deregulation, effectively sundered the New Deal coalition. To conservatives — well, why say it myself when The Wall Street Journal is so eloquently apocalyptic?

“Liberals would dominate the entire government in a way they haven’t since 1965, or 1933,” the Journal’s editorial page wrote last week. “In other words, the election would mark the restoration of the activist government that fell out of public favor in the 1970s.” The Journal warns of a “period of unchecked left-wing ascendancy” and says Americans “ought to understand what they will be getting.”

Unless it is not possible to know what they will be getting, or even what they want. A new poll by the Pew Research Center suggests that despite the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 — and despite some agreement that the government’s failure to properly regulate the financial industry might have helped cause the economic crisis — the public remains deeply skeptical about the efficacy of government. Even as hard times bear down on us, Americans are souring on the idea of expanding government to help people in need.

A clear majority — 57 percent in the Pew poll — say that government is almost always “wasteful and inefficient.” That’s up from 47 percent who held that dim view in December 2004. Barely half say government “should do more to help needy Americans even if it means going deeper into debt” — a marked decline from the 57 percent who wanted more help for the needy four years ago.

Even as the financial turmoil has boosted Obama’s political prospects, not even Democrats are overwhelmingly on board with the idea that the current crisis was caused primarily by lax regulation. In fact, the chief cause the public cited in the Pew poll was “people taking on too much debt,” which was named by a whopping 79 percent. Though Democrats were more likely than Republicans and independents to say that weak government regulation contributed to the economic meltdown, they, too, placed the blame more squarely on average individuals. Three-fourths of Democrats also said “people taking on too much debt” was the chief cause.

The public hardly seems ready for the sort of activist, liberal government that gives conservatives such jitters. Besides, with projected deficits and debt already growing beyond anything imagined since the early 1980s, the window in which Obama or Republican John McCain will have to implement programs that cost money will probably be brief. Government intervention and spending that are grudgingly accepted as necessary now could well be viewed as extravagant in just a few months.

The need for a quick, second economic stimulus package seems clear and is likely to be welcomed if, in fact, it spurs job creation. Much cloudier is the outlook for whether the next president can implement much of anything he has campaigned for — whether that is the tax cuts and social spending promoted by Obama or the additional tax cuts pledged by McCain.

If the Democrats do win big, liberals who become irrationally exuberant would soon enter a political danger zone. “People are concerned about government, debt, taxes — outlays like that,” says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew center. “The Democrats have to be careful not to overreach and go beyond public opinion.”

That, he notes, is what happened to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, when he tried to implement the deep spending reductions that were required to offset the big tax cuts embodied in the Republicans’ 1994 Contract With America. The showdown with President Clinton that resulted in shutting down the federal government bolstered Clinton’s standing and may have helped him win re-election.

Kohut, for his part, says he sees “no evidence yet” of a political realignment. These, he says, aren’t accomplished in winning campaigns. They evolve only when the winner governs successfully.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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