Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Defining Mandate

Robert Steinback in the Miami Herald:

If a 51.1 percent to 48.6 percent margin of election victory constitutes a “mandate,” as President Bush claimed in November, anything above that should be an overwhelming mandate, right?

Not in Bushworld.

In the America of the Bush-led Republicans, it appears that public opinion only matters on Election Day. After that, we subjects apparently are supposed to shut up and let the rulers rule.

That, of course, hasn’t been the nation’s tradition. Until recently, the U.S. public has expected its voice — whether expressed through referendum, poll, petition, public demonstration or letters and calls to congressmen — to be heard and respected, regardless of the election cycle. We took seriously the idea of politicians as “public servants.”

This has changed with the disturbingly imperial administrations of the Brothers Bush — President George and Florida Gov. Jeb — which have been marked by a pattern of disregarding or defying public sentiment, when those sentiments have run counter to the Bush agenda.


Many a pundit has speculated as to why the Bushes and the Republicans would fly into such a stiff headwind of public opinion. Some say it’s the influence of the Religious Right, collecting on an election debt.

I say it’s force of habit.

Consider the contempt the president showed for the millions of domestic and international demonstrators opposed to the invasion of Iraq, whom he dismissed as inconsequential “focus groups.” Or his refusal to back off his plan to privatize a huge chunk of the Social Security program even though Americans disapprove of that idea by a 56-35 margin, according a Washington Post-ABC News poll in mid-March.

Jeb has been even more brazen in his scorn for public sentiment. One might quibble with the authoritativeness of polls or demonstrations, but how about referenda? Jeb Bush has declared war on at least three state initiatives approved by Florida voters.

He was once caught saying he had a ”devious plan” to undermine a 2002 referendum to limit public-school class sizes, which he has plotted to repeal ever since. He succeeded in getting a bullet-train referendum back on the ballot and defeated. And he campaigned hard against two county slot-machine referenda — one passed, one failed — that were authorized by a statewide referendum he also opposed.


The president also has revealed his disrespect for public opinion through his administration’s clandestine efforts to manipulate it: Using tax money to create political ads disguised as authentic television news segments, planting shills in the White House news pool and allowing only approved members of the public to attend “public” town hall meetings, so that the president isn’t embarrassed by tough questions with the cameras rolling.

It’s acceptable for elected officials to promote the policies in which they believe and to educate the public on important issues. But we should be leery of the politician who feels that it’s his duty to defy the public when he doesn’t like our choices.

We’re the bosses. They’re the servants. Or so we’ve always been told.

Many a dictator has ruled under the mantra of “I am the servant of the people” — as long as they can define who the “people” are.