New York Times Magazine
Back in 2005, when Democrats in Congress fought to preserve their right to filibuster against George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, they spoke in unison about how Republicans were “changing the rules in the middle of the game,” a slogan they had tested with focus groups like a catchphrase for breakfast cereal. The idea was to turn an arcane question of process into a basic issue of fairness in the public mind, and it worked. Now, five years later, Republicans reeling from their health care defeat are trying the same tactic. The health care law was “rammed through Congress and rammed down the throats of the American people,” Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina declared on “Face the Nation,” echoing a chorus of other Republicans who have used the same metaphor to cast the law’s passage — accomplished partly through the technical process known as budget reconciliation — as an act of outright treachery. Republicans seem to be hoping they can steer the debate away from the actual provisions of the bill and to focus attention, instead, on the means by which it was passed.
If you live anywhere but Washington or watch less than six hours of cable news a day, you could be forgiven for asking how a law passed by a party that enjoys a comfortable 18-seat advantage in the Senate and a 76-seat margin in the House, not to mention having won the presidency by the widest margin in 20 years, could possibly represent some kind of frantic dash around the Constitution. And yet Republicans have settled on a narrative to this effect, and it goes roughly like this: Democrats came up with a statist solution to our health care woes that the public soundly rejected. So unpopular was this plan that even voters in liberal Massachusetts rose up against it, electing a Republican opponent of health care reform to fill Ted Kennedy’s vacant seat and denying Democrats the votes they needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. Undaunted by the public outcry, heedless Democrats went ahead and decided to employ a parliamentary trick that enabled them to push through the bill with a simple majority.
“Are we now in a world where there is absolutely no recourse to the tyranny of the majority?” Megan McArdle wrote in her blog for The Atlantic, making the procedural case against the new law. “Republicans and other opponents did their job on this; they persuaded the country that they didn’t want this bill. And that mattered basically not at all.”
On the facts alone, this argument is a little wobbly. The polling on health care does not, in fact, lead to any simplistic conclusion about the will of the electorate; a lot of voters seem to favor key provisions of the law while opposing the law itself, which mostly proves that they are skeptical of the impact of any sweeping legislation that might come out of Washington, health-care-related or not. But more to the point, the conservative indictment fails a basic test of philosophical consistency. After all, the guiding rationale of the Bush presidency, and especially his handling of the Iraq war, was that real leadership often meant doing what was mightily unpopular. Republicans embraced the Bush-Cheney administration as the antidote to Bill Clinton’s presidency, with its relentless emphasis on approval ratings and “triangulation.” Are those same Republicans really going to argue now that it’s immoral for Bush’s successor to enact his agenda because it doesn’t create a spike in the latest tracking poll? On the scale of political hypocrisy, this has to fall somewhere just behind John Edwards’s responsible-fatherhood initiative.
In a broader way, the problem with the “rammed down our throats” paradigm is that it undermines the critical ideal for which the Republican Party was named. The rise of the Internet society, and the ability we now have to register our every contemporaneous thought and to feel as if we speak directly to our leaders, has revitalized the tension in our politics between the idea of a constitutional republic and the more populist notion of an Athenian-style democracy. Digital technology makes ever more feasible a kind of government by plebiscite, in which the citizenry can decide everything by an instantaneous majority vote, sort of the way they do on “American Idol.” This concept appeals to some liberals, who have long complained that rural and less populated states exercise disproportionate influence over the affairs of the country under the current, state-based conceit.
Modern conservatives have offered a strident and necessary defense of a federalist government as the framers designed it, even if they sometimes take the concept of states’ rights to its extreme. (Representative Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, suggested last month that it might be time to eliminate the direct election of senators and let state legislatures choose them instead, as they did before the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913. Perhaps he’d like to roll back women’s suffrage while he’s at it.) And yet, by expressing fury over Democratic “tyranny” on health care, Republican leaders would seem to be abandoning one of the core principles of small-“r” republicanism. Their argument now rests on the notion of a modern government administered by popular referendums rather than by the union to which we routinely pledge allegiance. It makes sense only in a world where the masses, and not their elected representatives, get to alter the course of the country every day or maybe every hour, depending on how we’re feeling at the moment and how often we are polled.
Ultimately, the job of our elected leaders isn’t to poll the majority and act accordingly, like responsive droids. It’s to make choices and then to persuade us that those choices were right for the country. McArdle lamented in her post that, unlike the governments of Europe, “we don’t have the mechanisms, like votes of no confidence, that parliamentary democracies use to provide a check on their politicians.” (Tragically, we also lack a queen.) And yet we do have these notable things called elections, and as no less a Republican than John McCain has pointed out, they have consequences. A record number of Americans participated in a pretty consequential election in 2008, which is why a Democratic majority and a Democratic president had every right to pass the most transformative piece of social legislation in 40-plus years. If the voters don’t like it, they can reverse themselves in about seven months’ time — and that’s exactly how the system ought to work.
Matt Bai writes about national politics for the magazine.