Politics

Why Republicans Can't Ignore Angry Voters

If conservatives are told protests are fake, then they will expect swift passage of their agenda without compromise.

Where's the beef?

Photographer: Jeff Curry/Getty Images

Republican members of Congress are feeling a bit under siege right now. Their office phones won't stop ringing, and their town hall meetings are mobbed by people angry about health care, the travel ban, various Donald Trump cabinet officials, and more. 

Their reaction? Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz said the huge turnout at his town hall meeting last week was filled with people shipped in from other states -- "more of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate" than genuine constituent sentiment. This echoes what Trump himself tweeted earlier in February:

Indeed, some Republicans have been making this charge since the rallies immediately after the election in November. It is, of course, false. Just as with the Tea Party protests in 2009, there are national efforts -- such as the "indivisible" movement -- to supply the infrastructure of protest for angry rank-and-file citizens, but all of that would be worthless if a large number of citizens weren't actually angry to begin with. And we can be pretty certain there's no proof, or even evidence, of "paid protesters" for the simple reason that if Republicans had such evidence they would be supplying it every chance they got.

No one wants to believe that their ideas, or their president, are unpopular. But it's quite dangerous to the self-interest of Republicans to press these false charges, beyond the general (and important) reason that saying false things undermines one's credibility. 

It's dangerous even if Republicans realize they are dealing with a popular movement denouncing Trump and the plans of Republicans in Congress and are just pretending that it's all phony. That's because Republican voters listen to their elected officials, and tend to believe them. If they believe that everything Trump and their congresspeople do is overwhelmingly popular, then they'll have no patience for delays or retreats on any of the items on the agenda. Expectations-setting is an important part of representation, after all. It's already hard enough in the best of circumstances for citizens to understand the very real difficulties for getting anything done in a Madisonian system. If members of Congress add to that false claims about the popularity of what they want to do (by treating opposition as phony), they're asking for trouble.

It's even more dangerous, of course, if politicians really believe false claims about what voters are thinking. It's unlikely that Chaffetz, who won his latest re-election by almost 50 percentage points, is going to be in any personal danger in 2018. Nor is Wisconsin's Jim Sensenbrenner, who has never received fewer than 60 percent of the votes in any of his re-election efforts. But others with only slightly more competitive districts might find themselves in trouble if they entirely dismiss opposition. California's Tom McLintock, for example, faced a packed town hall meeting last week. He's in a Republican district; Trump carried California 4 with 54 percent of the vote, down from 58 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, and McLintock himself crushed his Democratic opponent. But this is exactly the kind of margin that can suddenly disappear in a partisan landslide, when the out-party recruits a strong challenger and the president's approval rating is in the dumps. And if districts such as McLintock's start to get shaky, then the Republican House majority would be in big trouble -- something neither Chaffetz nor Sensenbrenner want even if they protect their own seats.

It's one thing for Republican incumbents to remind everyone that they won the election, and to treat protests as the legitimate voices of what they can say is a minority. 1 It's another to totally dismiss them. 

All of this wouldn't matter so much if congressional Republicans were helpless to do anything about it. They are not. Congressional Republicans may not be able to give Trump the right experience or temperament or management skills for the job, but they can insist he hire a qualified chief of staff who has those attributes -- and use their leverage to back up those demands. Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, could threaten to hold hearings on any number of administration scandals. Senate Republicans could still slow down cabinet and other executive branch confirmations until Trump agrees to their demands. 2 And of course it's entirely up to Republicans what they choose to do on health care reform, tax cuts, or any other legislation. 

Not that I'd expect Republicans to drop their agenda because of a few (tens of thousands of) phone calls and constituents showing up to ask questions. They won their elections just a few months ago. Of course they'll try to pass things they ran on. But within that agenda, there are still plenty of choices to be made, and good representatives take into account all the people in their districts. That includes what political scientist Richard Fenno called their "primary" constituency (their strongest supporters), but also their re-election constituency (those who vote for them) and their geographical constituency, or the entire district. It's healthy for a member of Congress to pay closest attention to those strongest supporters. But listening only to them, while misinforming them about district sentiment overall, is another story. One that rarely ends well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Granted, nationally that's a problem because Trump didn't even get a plurality, let alone a majority. But House and Senate Republicans all were elected with more votes than their Democratic opponents!

  2. Democrats are indeed dragging their feet on those nominations, but can only push them back a few days or, cumulatively, a few weeks; Republicans could shut them down entirely if they chose to do so.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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