Especially in a campaign year, it is too easy for partisans to confuse their own opinions with general opinion, with sometimes disastrous result.
Examples of this danger occurred in several settings this past week:
- Enacting a state budget: State Senate Republicans, with votes from three moderate Democrats, last Friday passed their own version of a state budget, expecting to take it to compromise negotiations with House Democrats, who had passed their own version earlier. This is what happens in the legislative process.
Surprisingly, Gov. Chris Gregoire and Senate and House Democratic leaders said they would negotiate among themselves and pretend the Senate had not passed the GOP's version. Say again? The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn this coming Thursday (March 8) and clearly will not be able to do so if normal Senate-House negotiations do not take place, with the bills passed in each house as the basis for discussion.
The three Democrats who voted with Senate Republicans say they will continue to caucus with their party but, on the budget issue, they believed their party was ducking rather than confronting the matter. This happens and the legislators certainly have the right to vote according to their conscience on the salient issue of the legislative session.
The governor and Olympia Democrats have overstepped badly, in my judgment, and are courting a backlash from voters this fall. They hold a majority in the state capital but cannot just ignore the rules of the legislative game when they dislike majority action in either chamber.
Legislators should get to the conference table now with the Senate- and House-passed budget bills as their point of departure.
- Taxes and a birth control mandate: Democrats and Republicans inhabit their own universes, in particular, when it comes to tax policy and the Administration's recent decision to require all health-care providers to cover birth control for women.
Independent polling last week by The Hill, the newspaper covering Capitol Hill, brought surprising results regarding public attitudes on the two issues.
An Associated Press poll, taken 10 days ago, found 65 percent of respondents favoring President Obama's so-called "Buffet rule" whereby millionaires would be forced to pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes. A Pew poll last summer found 66 percent of adults favored raising taxes on those making over $250,000 annually, as a way to cut budget deficits. But the more recent Hill poll of 1,000 voters put the questions on tax policy another way, asking voters to specify "most appropriate" rates for each income group.
Some 75 percent of those polled said the right tax rate for top earners was 30 percent or below (the current rate is 35 percent). Only 4 percent thought it appropriate to tax at a 40 percent rate, appoximately the level President Obama seeks beginning in 2013.
Republicans were more likely than Democrats to support lower tax rates but not by much. When it came to corporate tax rates, 73 percent overall favored tax rates below 30 percent while only 21 percent favoared a top rate of 35 percent or more. Interestingly, respondents earning more than $100,000 annually were least supportive of lower rates.
Demanding higher taxes of the rich and of corporations may not be the political slam dunk it seems. Americans voters, of all persuasions, historically have been wary of soak-the-rich policies — mainly because they have seen their kids, if not themselves, having the chance down the road to become rich.
The mandated birth-control coverage generated a firestorm of protests on both sides of the issue. One pro-choice spokesman said that "Republicans have declared war on women" by questioning the policy. Opponents said it constituted an unwarranted federal invasion of private and church boundaries. Media coverage tended to tilt to the pro-administration side.
A Gallup Poll last month of 1,014 voters found 48 percent sympathizing more greatly with religious leaders who objected to the mandate and 46 percent sympathizing with the administration's decision. The Hill survey asked voters whether they were more disposed to support Obama or the GOP presidential nominee because of the decision. Some 36 percent said they'd be more likely to support the GOP candidate, 35 percent the president, and 28 percent said it made no difference. Gender differences were surprisingly small.
Some 33 percent of men and 38 percent of women said they leaned to Obama because of the mandate; 38 percent of men and 34 percent of women said they leaned to his GOP opponent.
This data tended to confirm prior opinion data showing that Americans remain split about 50-50 between pro-choice and anti-abortion views but, for the most part, are less concerned with the issue than they are with the economic and war-and-peace issues that are ascendant in national-election years.
The lesson in Olympia and to debaters about tax rates and birth control: Not too much partisan or ideological zeal, please. Ordinary voters want the public business debated and done in a moderate, common-sense way.