There’s been a lot of junk coming from the GOP lately about Democrats ignoring the will of the people over health insurance reform. The problems with that line of attack are many. First and foremost, America is a constitutional representative republic, not a true democracy. We elect people to make decisions for us, not to take our direct orders, nor do we make decisions ourselves on the federal level.
Whether or not our current system works better than a straight democracy, or even if it’s more practical, is certainly within the realm of legitimate debate. But for now we’ve got to live with the fact that we’re a republic, and so must acknowledge that public opinion is important but shouldn’t necessarily be the deciding factor.
More odious but perhaps less academic is the inconvenient fact that Republicans tend to ignore public opinion when they are in power every bit as much as they accuse Democrats of doing. It’s even more striking when you consider just how much the Democratic agenda under the Obama administration carries a majority of public support.
I’ve written about this previously and it’s worth writing about again. Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com did some research to pick out what he deems to be the top Democratic issues of recent times, based on how much – if any – effort the party has put into enacting laws regarding these issues. He found that the public sides with Democrats and against Republicans in the vast majority of cases.
One issue that Nate didn’t consider — given current Democratic support probably – is the war in Iraq. But the point still reveals GOP hypocrisy on the issue. According to historical polling by ABC News/Washington Post, the public supported the war (based on its perceived benefits and costs) 70-27 in the spring of 2003. That support fell to 48% within just nine months, meaning that the modern GOP would conceivably be demanding that the old GOP pull out of Iraq as early as January or February of 2004.
Instead, they started smearing Americans who opposed the war – that magical majority that must be obeyed at all costs lest we become an evil tyranny – as America-hating terrorist sympathizers (Republicans were still trying to link Iraq to 9/11 back then) who hated the troops and wanted them to lose. They funded it year after year and even escalated it as public opposition continued to rise above 50%. By the time Republicans were swept from Congress in 2006, support for the war had collapsed to just 35% (not all that far from Congressional GOP approval ratings, or George Bush’s job approval rating for that matter.)
According to Nate’s research, Republicans should have supported the following Democratic agenda issues that had moderate-to-large public support: cap-and-trade, D.C. voting rights, the Matthew Sheppard Act, taxing Wall Street bonuses, campaign finance reform (overturning Citizen’s United), fair pay for women, financial reform of Wall Street, repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the recent post-Recovery Act jobs bill, mortgage relief (“cram down”), PAYGO rules (pay as you go, no new spending without cuts or new revenue), extending SCHIP (health insurance for children), *and the stimulus package.
All of those issues held or have majority public support, and Republicans opposed them all. Some of these issues like jobs and SCHIP have overwhelming support, more than 3-in-4. The SCHIP extension even had to survive a presidential veto.
Some issues which are stale but relevant, like the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts for the rich, had enormous public opposition. When last polled, 74% of Americans opposed the Bush-era tax cuts, far exceeding the bare 47-51% that oppose health insurance reform.
But that didn’t stop Republicans from doing whatever they wanted when they were in power, so what business do they have whining about it now?
*The stimulus legislation (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) had majority public support when it was passed. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has determined that ARRA has created up to 2,000,000 jobs.