Can we please leave "the American people" out of the debate over defunding the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare)? I'm not talking about the citizens of this great nation, but rather the politically self-righteous verbal tick our elected officials and commentators employ in an effort to invest in themselves the authority of the electorate.
So for example, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, the "defund" ringmaster, said earlier this week that while his grand idea has little chance in the Senate, "House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people." And on Fox News on Wednesday night, Cruz praised "House leadership for listening to the American people," adding that, "We've got to respond to the American people." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Cruz said, "needs to listen to" – you guessed it! – "the American people."
Appearing on the same show, Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee declared that "the American people are coming together, and they're standing together and they're saying, please defund this law." He went on to praise House Speaker John Boehner for standing "with the American people. We now need to stand with him and with the people and defund this law." And so on. (Boehner's House this morning actually did pass a continuing resolution which would keep the government open through Dec.15 while defunding the Affordable Care Act; the bill stands no chance of passing the Senate.)
It must be bracing to carry a mandate to speak on behalf of the American people ... even if, as is the case with Cruz, Lee and their tea party pals, they don't have anything of the sort. Instead they have the insufferable pretension of one: They alone speak for the people because, well, they say so. Their belief in their own popular righteousness recalls Mr. Dooley's definition of a fanatic: someone who "does what he thinks th' Lord wud do if He knew th' facts iv th' case."
And from whence does their mandate to speak so authoritatively for "the American people" derive? Cruz referenced an Internet petition which garnered 1.3 million signatures. "Look, today's decision is a victory for the American people," he said. "Those 1.3 million Americans … that went and signed that petition and spoke out." That might explain the difference between the American people and Cruz's "the American people": He defines the term as people who share his radical agenda.
More broadly Cruz, Lee and company would presumably point to polls showing that Obamacare remains broadly unpopular. But that reflects, charitably, a superficial knowledge of the polling. Take the Pew Research Center/USA Today poll released earlier this week. Fully 53 percent disapprove of the Affordable Care Act as opposed to only 42 percent who approve. (The Real Clear Politics average of polls has 38 percent approving and 52 percent disapproving.) But dig deeper and you'll find that that 53 percent is split over how to deal with the law they don't like – more than half of them, 27 percent, want pols to try to make the law work; a lesser number, 23 percent, want to see elected officials try to make it fail. In other words something like one-quarter of the actual American people stand with Cruz, Lee and the rest of the fanatics. Some mandate.
This is not an unusual result. Even a laughably skewed poll which Heritage Action – the activist branch of the Heritage Foundation – commissioned to bolster the "defund" push found that 52 percent of Americans (or more precisely 52 percent of Americans in a selection of 10 GOP-leaning House districts) think that implementation of the law should go forward, while only 44.5 percent favor repeal. This makes intuitive sense: Not everyone who dislikes the law does so because they're conservative; some portion of the law's critics is progressives disappointed that it wasn't more liberal.
But there are a couple of more important points to be made about polls. For one thing, the most authoritative poll taken in the last year occurred in November, at great expense. It had a sample size of more than 125 million and the results were not particularly close: The candidate who campaigned on repealing Obamacare lost by four percentage points – nearly five million votes – to the fellow who signed Obamacare into law. You'd think that if the American people saw stopping Obamacare as a cause worth fighting for "with every ounce of breath we have," as Cruz put it Thursday, they might have so indicated at the ballot box. And yet Cruz, Lee and their cronies seem to see in this result a mandate from "the American people" (if not the American people) to obstruct the law to the maximum extent, even to the extent of shutting down the government to stop it.
And while the tea party right's fidelity to the will of "the American people" as expressed by more recent public opinion polls is admirable, it takes on a far more self-serving aspect when considered in light of other polls which left people like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee unmoved. For example 86 percent of Americans support background checks for people buying guns; on immigration reform, 64 percent of Americans support the comprehensive bill that the Senate passed and 78 percent support a qualified path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Oh, and 71 percent of Americans oppose shutting down the government, according to a poll conducted over the summer for House Republicans. For those keeping track at home, those figures are more impressive than the 50-something opposed to Obamacare – perhaps no one has told Cruz, Lee et al. about these judgments from "the American people?"
And to be clear, this is not a partisan problem. Pols in both parties are promiscuous with the desires of "the American people," while none have a monopoly on it. So let's agree that it's time to retire "the American people" – or more specifically their demands and expectations – from the political lexicon.