House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently did a series of interviews defending his far-right budget plan, arguing that his agenda is “what people want.” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) recently made a similar point about his party’s agenda, arguing that “80 percent of the American people” endorse the Republicans’ fiscal priorities.
For the right, this is a terrible argument, in part because the GOP leaders are wrong, and in part because it relies on an unhelpful premise – the more Republicans say policymakers should care about “what people want,” the more difficult it is for them to explain why they’re ignoring the wishes of the American mainstream.
Take immigration, for example. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll, released this morning, included this chart showing public attitudes on various ideas to improve the existing immigration system. The main components of President Obama’s immigration-reform agenda all enjoy the support of a clear a majority of Americans.
And yet, Republican opposition to reform remains strong, regardless of “what people want.”
A new national Morning Joe/Marist poll, also published this morning, found most Americans also want expanded background checks for gun purchases, and by a 2-to-1 margin, want policymakers to prioritize job creation over deficit reduction. The results on economic policy echo recent findings from Gallup.
A variety of national polls also show most Americans support marriage equality. It, too, is “what people want.”
Looking at this in the larger context, there are a couple of angles to keep in mind.
The first issue is the gap between the wishes of the American mainstream and the demands of the Republican base. Most of the country supports immigration reform, new gun laws, civil rights, a balanced approach to debt reduction, budget deals that leave Medicare intact, etc., but most GOP voters believe the exact opposite. Republican policymakers have a choice – listen to the will of the electorate or listen to the will of their electorate – and they obviously prioritize the latter.
And since it’s the Republican base that drives primary results and remains so crucial to midterm results, GOP lawmakers are convinced it’s in their interest to pay more attention to their voters, to the exclusion of everyone else.
But the other nagging concern is a rhetorical one: Republicans continue to believe the polls are on their side, despite black-and-white, numbers-on-the-page evidence to the contrary. It’s why Paul Ryan argues with a straight face that his vision, despite being rejected in elections and in polling results, is “what people want.”
This is terribly foolish. If Boehner, Ryan and their party want to say polling isn’t terribly important, I could at least respect the underlying principle – they could easily make a compelling case that what matters is the right policy, not the popular one.
But these guys are trying to have it both ways – polling does matter, the GOP argues, except for all the polls that show Americans disagreeing with Republicans and urging Republicans to do what they have no intention of doing.
It’s as if coherence has been thrown out the GOP’s window. The Republican argument at this point is simply bizarre: policymakers should take their lead from voters, except when voters disagree with Republicans, at which point policymakers (a) shouldn’t give a damn, or (b) pretend the minority is the majority.
GOP policymakers can stick to their unyielding, far-right principles or they can offer voters “what people want.” They can’t do both.