Commentary Magazine


A Clash of Mandates

All throughout the debate over Obamacare, polls showed the public opposed to the bill. That did nothing to stop Democrats from pushing the legislation through Congress, of course, and voters responded by staying true to their word: they voted out congressional Democrats in historic numbers in the next election. Democrats and the national media generally ignore inconveniences like voters when the opportunity arises to pass far-reaching legislation, but that instinct has kicked in on other matters as well.

For example, the New York Times has discovered that the current “fiscal cliff” negotiations pose something of a problem for democratically elected representatives whose constituents don’t want them to raise taxes. It turns out that Democrats are right when they say “elections matter”–though not only the presidential election. Now that the push for some tax increases as part of a final deal is gaining momentum, Republicans elected by voters who oppose such tax hikes are caught between representing the will of their electors and what liberal editorial boards tell them is the good of the country:

“We ran aggressively talking about taxes and growth and spending, as did the president,” said Representative Sean P. Duffy, a first-term Republican from Wisconsin, who despite being a top target of Democrats easily won re-election by 12 percentage points. “The president keeps talking about his mandate. Well, he doesn’t have a mandate in the Seventh District.”…

“My constituents want me to stand firm on cutting spending. I campaigned on that issue. That’s why they elected me,” said Representative Ted Poe, Republican of Texas, who won re-election with 65 percent of the vote. “I don’t see any scenario where raising tax rates, in any combination of compromise, will solve our problem.”

Of the 234 House Republicans who will sit in the 113th Congress, 85 percent won re-election with 55 percent of the vote; more than half of next year’s House Republican Conference won more than 60 percent. And virtually every one of them ran on holding the line against tax increases and the Obama agenda.

This is not a simple problem for the lawmakers; polls do indeed show national support for some tax hikes. In Duffy’s case, Obama did win his state running on a platform of soaking “the rich.” Duffy can honestly respond that he won his district by promising to be a check on Obama’s agenda, and that his district is what matters to him, since he doesn’t represent the whole state.

I’m betting you can guess what the Times wants him to do:

Given the electoral dynamics, the lawmakers who are broaching the possibility of raising tax rates as a way to strike a deal and prevent the possibility of a recession are beginning to appeal to House members with a term not heard often in the House — the national interest.

It’s the “national interest” vs. those pesky voters. The article does offer some clarity, though. This, combined with the Politico/George Washington University poll released yesterday, proves the utter silliness of the Democrats’ argument that Republicans are simply doing the bidding of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. Sure, Republicans have signed a pledge not to raise taxes, but their voters haven’t–and they still don’t want the tax hikes. In fact, not only did they not sign a pledge to Norquist, they generally don’t even know who he is. From the Post’s Chris Cillizza:

For all the focus in Washington on Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, he remains an almost entirely unknown figure nationally.  More than six in 10 (61 percent) of those tested had never heard of Norquist while another 15 percent had no opinion of him.  Among those who did have an opinion, eight percent regarded him favorably while 18 percent viewed him in an unfavorable light.  The idea that the fiscal cliff fight is a proxy war over Norquist then seems far-fetched.

Well, yes. It does more than seem farfetched. It was ever thus. But you didn’t need a poll to tell you that. Just listen to Norquist himself. When he was criticized by Senator Tom Coburn over the pledge, Norquist said: “He took the pledge — not to me, to the voters.” And as Ezra Klein reported here, the pledge helps Republicans get elected–and keeping the pledge helps them stay elected. If opposing tax increases were a losing issue with voters the pledge simply wouldn’t have that effect.

This is not an argument on behalf of taking the pledge. But when discussions of the pledge and of Republicans (especially in the House) who are reluctant to raise taxes exclude the voters, they miss the point. It may or may not be the right thing to do to raise taxes as part of the effort to stave off the fiscal cliff. But as even the Times has come to realize, Obama is not the only one with a mandate.

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