One of the biggest and most frequent mistakes in politics is for a party to misread its mandate. When it happens, independent and swing voters get angry and punish a candidate or a party on Election Day. Because American politics is a zero-sum game, punishing one party means rewarding the other party—even when the latter is not necessarily deserving of support. Frequently, the party that benefits from the spanking mistakenly interprets it to mean that the public is embracing every aspect of its agenda. Republicans shouldn’t forget that their party had dismal favorable/unfavorable poll ratings last fall. They won because they weren’t Democrats.
There is no question that the Republican base, conservatives, and supporters of the tea party want to take a meat ax to government spending. When Republican congressional members return home and meet with their constituents, they are encouraged to vote against continuing resolutions and for deep spending cuts. These supporters have intensity, and they adamantly oppose any compromise with Democrats.
It would be a blunder, however, to think that such views drove the election. Republicans, conservatives, and tea partiers did not throw Republicans out of their House and Senate majorities in 2006, and they did not vote to increase the size of the Democratic majorities and elect Barack Obama president in 2008.
Independent voters were the ones who cast their ballots for Democrats by an 18-point margin in 2006 because they were mad at President Bush and upset about the war in Iraq, not to mention Republican scandals and the general performance of the GOP Congress. Two years later, these same voters were still angry at the president, were afraid of the financial crisis, and didn’t care for GOP presidential nominee John McCain.
In 2010, these independent voters were unimpressed by the economic-stimulus package, didn’t like cap-and-trade environmental regulation, and really didn’t like the Democratic health care package. Those over or approaching 65 years of age also feared that health care reform would erode Medicare benefits. Even those unaffected by the reforms rallied to defend Medicare.
Polling is very clear. Most voters want to see the federal budget balanced and spending cut. However, they don’t want Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid touched, and, oh yes, they don’t want taxes increased. Now, anyone with an IQ over room temperature knows that all of this is impossible. Spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, along with interest on the national debt, amounts to approximately half the federal budget.
There is no doubt that significant budget cutting is necessary and that Medicare and Medicaid must be reformed. No one can doubt the courage or sincerity of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. But it’s little short of suicidal to drop a Medicare reform package—even a voucher plan that would be optional for those currently older than 55—into tough budget negotiations stymied over Republican demands for deep spending cuts. Democrats have some experience with older voters going ballistic, even with changes that wouldn’t affect them.
For many seniors, doing anything to Medicare that can’t be portrayed as an increase is essentially a cut, and they will fight it to their last breath. From a political standpoint, Medicare reform is very dangerous territory. House Republicans are not just pushing the envelope—they are soaking it with lighter fluid and waving a match at it.
One can understand why Republicans are pushing so hard. Their base is demanding that they do so. And if congressional Republicans resist, many of them can look forward to primary opposition next year. But it seems that GOP members of Congress have become so consumed with pleasing their base that they are ignoring general-election voters and the independents who drive the wild gyrations in American politics.
Congressional Republicans would be well advised to pay attention to the results of the latest Pew Research Center poll (conducted March 30 to April 3 among 1,057 adults) that asked Americans whether they would prefer that their lawmakers stand by their principles even if it meant that the government would shut down, or whether they would rather have their lawmakers compromise on a budget even if they didn’t agree with it. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agree with the tea party movement, 68 percent said they would rather have a lawmaker who stands by his or her principles. But among all Republicans, only 50 percent said stand by their principles, while 43 percent said compromise. Among all adults, 55 percent said compromise; among independents, 53 percent said compromise, with 36 percent siding with the principles option.
The bottom line: GOP primary voters are very different from general-election voters. It would be a very shortsighted strategy for Republican members—especially those in swing districts—to focus too much on primary voters. A lot of Democrats did the same thing in 2009 and 2010. Many are now former members of Congress.
This article appears in the April 9, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.