Republican leaders are sounding like men with a mandate. Sweeping House gains and new governorships in nine key swing states in the 2012 presidential election will do that for a party. "We are determined to stop the agenda Americans have rejected and to turn this ship around," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
So what, exactly, have Americans rejected? Republicans have vowed to repeal the new health reform law, which McConnell called "a metaphor for the government excess that we witnessed over the last two years." The national exit poll of 17,504 midterm election voters
, however, was less definitive. It found that 48 percent want the health law repealed and 47 percent want it either expanded (31 percent) or left as is (16 percent).
McConnell further said that Republicans would "work with the administration when they agree with the people and confront them when they don't." How will that play out when it's time to debate President Obama's draw-down strategy in Afghanistan? Republicans have scored him for setting a July 1 date to begin bringing out U.S. troops. But the exit poll suggests "the people" want an end to the 10-year-old war; voters disapproved of it 54 percent to 40 percent.
And what about Medicare and Social Security? The Republican "Pledge to America
" doesn't even mention them in its "plan to stop out of control spending." The two entitlement programs are the main drivers of soaring government spending, but they're also very popular. "The people" might not approve of cuts or savings, or moving them into the private sector
. Does that mean Republicans won't touch them?
Mandates are complicated things. Just ask Bill Clinton, who thought he'd been elected at least in part to pass a health reform law. Or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was convinced that the country would rejoice in a government shutdown (shockingly, most Americans reacted badly). Or Obama, who campaigned on pretty much the same health plan that he signed into law. Who knew that at least in the short-term it would turn into a polarizing political albatross, not to mention a Mitch McConnell metaphor?
There were, to be sure, many signs that the triumphal GOP is on the same page or at least in the same chapter as voters. By three-to-one, those questioned in the exit poll said they had negative feelings about the way the federal government is working. They certainly seem to prefer a smaller government, with 56 percent agreeing that government is doing too many things "better left to businesses and individuals."
They gave Obama an approval rating of only 45 percent and more than half -- 52 percent -- said his policies would hurt the country in the long run. And though economists of all types say the Democrats' stimulus package helped avert a depression, two-thirds of this week's voters said it either hurt or made no difference.
For all the GOP talk about voters sending a message, however, only 37 percent said their vote was meant to express opposition to Obama. About a quarter said it was to express support and another 37 percent said Obama was not a factor. Both parties appear to be in need of image rehab: 53 percent said they had a negative opinion of Democrats, while 52 percent said the same of Republicans.
An overwhelming majority of the 17,504 people in the exit poll -- 86 percent -- said they were worried about where the economy is headed in the next year. A way-too-high 31 percent said someone in their household had lost a job or been laid off in the last two years. But only 23 percent blamed Obama for current economic problems. They assigned greater blame to Wall Street (35 percent) and former president George W. Bush (29 percent).
Republicans trying to listen to the people's views on the top priority of the next Congress will find a near even split between reducing the budget deficit and spending to create jobs. The exit poll found 39 percent for the former, 37 percent for the latter. Another 19 percent said it should be cutting taxes.
The same type of split is apparent on the first issue Congress will be addressing after the election: Bush-era tax cuts that will expire unless they are extended in a lame duck session this month. Recent polls show an even split
between keeping the lower rates for everyone, or letting them expire on household income above $250,000. A similar split was apparent in the exit poll -- and another 15 percent said they wanted to let the lower rates expire for everyone, presumably to further the goal of deficit reduction.
So who do you listen to when "the people" are divided? Do you just listen to those who agree with you? And do you listen to "the people" when it means ignoring your own judgment? What about when they are saying the opposite of panicky experts and officials who tell you the U.S. and world banking systems will fail if you don't inject $700 billion into the financial system right now? (Yes, that would be the Troubled Asset Relief Program that spelled doom this year for so many politicians who supported it in 2008 at the imploring of the terrified Bush economic team).
McConnell provided some guidance on who NOT to listen to: Obama. Chastened Democrats, he said Wednesday, had learned that "choosing your president over your constituents is not a good strategy." So, leave your judgment at the door, resist entreaties from your president, and mirror the people who sent you.
The tricky part, as Republicans move back into positions of influence, is to figure out what those people really want and how it fits with what you have said you wanted to accomplish. Sometimes they're not the same.