Washington Matters


The Mirage of a GOP Mandate

Mark Willen

Count on Republicans claiming a mandate that voters won't give them.



However large the Republican victory is next month, count on one thing: The GOP is certain to claim a mandate it doesn’t have.

As President Obama did in 2008, as President Bush did in 2004 and as party leaders have invariably done from time immemorial, those that win a big election -- or win an election big -- have a natural tendency to overstate its meaning, partly from euphoria and partly as a tactic for pushing through a new agenda.

In 2004, Bush claimed a mandate for a partial privatization of Social Security, only to find the voters and Democrats firmly against it. And after his victory, Obama mounted a multipronged, far-reaching agenda that will cost his party dearly on Nov. 2.

Republicans are certain to repeat the mistake. Whether they capture 38 House seats and come up short of taking control or whether they capture 80 seats, GOP leaders will insist that American voters have given them a mandate to quickly and sharply shrink government, to repeal health care, to cut taxes and to slash federal spending. Tea Party members, who are certain to have a sizable caucus, will go even further, with some arguing against any programs not explicitly supported by the Constitution. Some Tea Partyers, for example, believe unemployment benefits are unconstitutional because there is no clause in that document specifically supporting a safety net. And many want to at least partially privatize Social Security and entirely eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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They’ll insist the voters sent a clear message about what they want -- but they’ll be wrong. Or at least, partially wrong. While it’s readily apparent that many voters don’t think Obama and the Democratic Congress are doing enough to improve the economy and reduce the federal debt, they’re far from united on how to go about doing so.

Republican gains will be driven not by support for the GOP agenda but by anger at Democrats. In fact, poll after poll have shown that congressional Democrats are viewed more favorably than Republicans. Moreover, Obama -- with an average approval rating in the high 40s -- is more popular than either group.

On the issues -- especially big government -- there’s no solid guidance from voters. A recent study by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found that 49% of Americans favor higher taxes to pay for more government services, while 47% favor lower taxes and fewer services. A National Journal poll, meanwhile, found that a little over a third -- 35% -- don’t think government should play a central role in fixing the economy, but 28% said it should, and 33% said they’d like it to but weren’t sure it was up to the task.

Polls also show strong support for a safety net. While voters say they want the deficit tackled at some point, they first want to fix the economy, and if that means big deficits (either because of tax cuts or higher spending on infrastructure and job training), they’re willing to pay that price for a while. They’re also split on entitlement programs, with 42% favoring higher Social Security taxes, 31% favoring benefit cuts, 12% favoring both and 35% opposing both, according to a Gallup poll.

Republicans will be right about public sentiment on health care: The health care law remains highly unpopular, with a majority of voters considering it to be the wrong approach to reining in costs and improving coverage. But even on that, supporters of an appeal are in a minority; most of those who complain about the bill think the law should be fixed rather than repealed.

The bottom line is that voters have a more nuanced view of the complex problems facing the country than many politicians give them credit for. That makes it very likely than Republican leaders will overreach, making the same mistakes that so many other election winners have made in years past. And they may pay a price for it in an election down the road.



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