INDIANAPOLIS-Small government conservatives have to try harder. Just like in the old Avis car rental commercials.
Big government liberals, on the other hand, have the tactical advantage of promising voters more benefits: Social Security, "free" education, national healthcare, and nice government jobs.
Small government conservatives have a less glamorous message: lower taxes and less regulation. Throw in some freedom and it sounds a little better.
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, showed how to win with less government in his successful reelection bid last week. And his Democratic challenger, Melina Kennedy, definitely offered more promises and benefits than Ballard and enjoyed the advantage of more registered Democrats in Indiana's state capital.
Kennedy never identified herself as a big government liberal, but she promised to do everything Ballard could do, but better-and tackle early childhood education as a top priority. Her key campaign pledge was to put city tax money into preschool education, to supplement a substantial amount of federal government money that already subsidizes childcare centers for 3- and 4-year-olds.
Ballard offered voters not only the small-government theme, but also a record of administrative competence. In his first term, he cut crime and brought reform to the police department. He sold the city-owned water and sewer utilities and started using the $250 million proceeds to finance a road repair boom around the city. He's a manager, not a visionary.
Kennedy tried to promote herself as a better manager, but it was a hard sell. She found fault with the incumbent's record, but she had to ask voters to take it on faith that she could do better. Her negative advertising about the shortcomings of the Ballard administration probably lost her more votes than she gained. She also was part of the less-than-well-managed administration of Ballard's predecessor, Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson.
Kennedy needed something outside a mayor's usual box of tools to try to make her case.
She might have found it in education. Kennedy is right that better schools are crucial for the future of Indianapolis. A better-educated workforce is a key to build on the city's strengths of amateur sports ventures and NBA and NFL sports franchises. But she never asked for a mayoral takeover of the Indianapolis Public Schools. Instead, she took up the cause of preschool education. Kennedy proposed to put $50 million of the water and sewer works sale to this cause. But her proposal, stretched over 10 years, was largely symbolic given the amount of money already coming into the county through federal grants for this purpose.
Kennedy no doubt won some votes with the cry to help children. Yet she likely lost some as well from voters who wondered about her sense of priorities as mayor.
Kennedy had the advantage of the Democratic Party dominance. Yet party loyalty and feel-good promises about little children were not enough for her to overtake a hardworking Marine. Ballard asked to be judged on the performance principles he's tried to install in city government, and his contract was renewed by a 51-47 percent margin.
So small-government conservatives can win elections sometimes just with an appeal to less government and more freedom. A track record of competent administration can help too.