Having dodged a government shutdown for the moment, Congress is now embroiled in a burning debate over cutting the federal budget. The House has passed a bill imposing far-reaching cuts of $61 billion — dramatically slashing everything from education and housing to environmental regulations and public broadcasting. This is “the will of the people,” House Speaker John Boehner argues, citing last November’s elections.
Yet national polls suggest otherwise. Pew, Gallup, Harris: all portray an American public that seems uninterested in lopping off federal programs. A solid majority actually wants to increase education spending, only a quarter of those polled want to see cuts to environmental programs, and an outsized majority of people would prefer to see Social Security benefits either remain the same or increase. Indeed, if exit polls from last year are to be believed, voters were far more concerned about righting the economy than about cutting the federal deficit.
It is hard to escape the feeling that the Republican majority in the House may have misread its mandate. But if so, it’s only following in the footsteps of the Democrats who misunderstood Americans’ appetite for expanding the federal government’s ambitions after the 2008 elections, the GOP’s overreach following its takeover of Congress in 1994, the Democrats’ overestimation of their popularity after the 1992 elections…. You get the idea.
Why does this happen? Why do good politicians frequently misread the voters’ intent and get rebuked at the next election? How could it be that politicians — whose job, after all, involves trying to stay in tune with the mood of their constituents — so regularly find themselves out of touch?
My guess is that it is rooted in the nature of campaigning today. For a variety of reasons, ranging from the way congressional districts are drawn, to the changing nature of primary electorates, candidates running for Congress — incumbents and newcomers alike — spend a lot of time talking to people who already are inclined to agree with them. They draw their supporters to campaign events, they hobnob with party activists, they work the phones with like-minded donors, and they give stump speeches to sympathetic audiences that get honed over time so that the themes that resonate are the ones that they keep repeating.
By the end of a campaign, having had their concerns echoed back to them by their audiences, politicians are convinced they’re hearing directly from the American people. If they win, then, it must be because the people agreed with what they had to say. In effect, their speeches become their mandate from the voters.
But one-sided campaign audiences are not the same as the electorate. Moreover, sometimes a candidate wins not because voters wish to endorse her positions, but because they wish to kick out the incumbent. And sometimes a party wins an off-year election only because, while a majority of the voters who showed up that day preferred it to the alternative, those voters formed a narrower slice of the electorate than those who will show up for the next presidential election.
My view is that Americans as a whole tend to be fairly moderate. They might favor reforming the social safety net and being judicious about the federal government’s reach, but they also want to shield society from the worst twists of the unbridled free market. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Henry Olsen put it in a much-read analysis after the 2010 elections, a close reading of recent history suggests that “the same voters who are repelled by modern liberals are also leery of modern conservatives — because while these voters oppose rapid expansions of the welfare state and federal power, they do not favor rapid retrenchments of them, either.”
When a party takes power, it will naturally try to achieve its ideological goals and think it can push forward without the need of compromise. The will of the people, after all, was clearly expressed. But if the history of the past couple of decades is any guide, it should be careful not to confuse its own partisan leanings for a mandate from the American people. And it certainly shouldn’t be surprised if, having succeeded legislatively, it gets rebuked by voters who believe it has misread their intentions.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.