There's no reason for conservatives to be Pollyannaish about Tuesday's results. President Obama's re-election, coupled with Democratic gains in the Senate, mean that his national health care law will be implemented as planned, taxes will rise, and there will be no hope of genuinely reforming of our nation's broken entitlement system in the near future.
But as tempting as it will be for analysts to pin the GOP's 2012 defeat on an embrace of small-government extremism, the results from last night don't actually bear this out.
According to exit polls as described by Politico, "53 percent of those surveyed said the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals -- a figure that's risen 10 points since the 2008 election. Comparatively, 41 percent of voters said they believe government should be doing more."
When House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan unveiled his first budget proposing sweeping reforms to Medicare and Medicaid in 2011, Democrats celebrated because they thought it would destroy the GOP. They launched a scare campaign on the idea that Republicans were going to end Medicare and toss Granny over the cliff. This strategy went into overdrive when Mitt Romney picked Ryan as his running mate.
And yet, the Romney-Ryan ticket obliterated Obama among voters over age 65, winning the group by a 12-point margin. That number not only beat John McCain's performance among seniors, but also the five-point margin former President Bush enjoyed over John Kerry in 2004 -- the year after Bush signed the Medicare prescription drug benefit into law.
At the same time, Republicans maintained control of the House of Representatives, which overwhelmingly passed versions of the Ryan budget this year and last.
Those who want to blame conservatives for Tuesday's results will also point to Republican missed opportunities in the Senate. But here, too, it's difficult to say that limited government extremism was to blame. In Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson was the Republican establishment candidate. In Missouri, Tea Partiers opposed Todd Akin's nomination during the primary. While they did support Richard Mourdock in the Indiana primary, polls showed him winning until a few weeks before the election, when he made a controversial comment about abortion in an instance of rape. This, not his position on federal spending, is what cost him the election.
In Montana, Republicans nominated Denny Rehberg, who voted against the Ryan budget not just once, but twice. Yet he lost his Senate race by four points, even though Romney carried the state comfortably. What's more, he might have won if it weren't for Libertarian candidate Dan Cox, who argued that Republicans didn't go far enough to reduce spending and who embraced ending the Federal Reserve Board, and took 6 percent of the vote.
If Romney lost the election because the electorate was rebelling against small-government extremism, it should be reflected in his numbers among independents. Yet that group of voters broke for Romney by a five-point margin, according to exit polls. Obama won because Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans. If anything, this would suggest that Romney didn't do enough to rally the conservative base, though I believe that conclusion would go a bit too far.
No doubt, Republicans have to do some soul-searching in the wake of Tuesday's defeat. Republicans cannot afford to continue to lose women, Hispanics and young voters by such large margins and expect to win national elections. And while this analysis is aimed at disproving the idea that small-government extremism is to blame for the GOP defeat, there's certainly not much evidence that a stronger small-government message would have meant victory. At least not this year.
All of that said, though there's plenty of reason for small-government advocates to despair, the reality is that the math of the unsustainable welfare state will eventually catch up with the rest of the country, and they will rise again. Unfortunately, this week's defeat ensures that any reforms will have to be enacted with a bigger government as the starting point, and at a time when the debt crisis is even more severe.
Philip Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.