American voters are symbolically conservative but operationally liberal…When asked about specific government programs and specific social goals, the American public generally wants the government to do more, spend more, and redistribute more. But at the same time, citizens are considerably more likely to identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals. The American public, in other words, generally wants more government-based solutions to social problems, but overwhelmingly identifies with the ideological label that rejects those solutions.
Politicians know this fact to be true. The GOP talks and talks ad nauseum about reducing spending, but cannot articulate any spending cuts of substance they would actually make if they could. This is precisely because they know that voters like the idea of small government in principle, but love individual government programs in practice.