That uncomfortable reality has led some Republicans to warn their leaders to be careful about misreading the message of the electorate, a mistake that they said Democrats made after they won even bigger majorities after 2008 and moved swiftly to enact liberal policies long sought by their base. “You’ve got to recognize the popular vote tally,” said Representative Tom Reed, a Republican representing upstate New York. “There is a voice out there that supports a counter message. So I think the critical thing that we’ve got to find the sweet consensus on is not to overreach, not to commit the Obama mistake, in my opinion, of 2008 going into 2010 where you had an ideological agenda carried through.”
When House Republicans met for the first time since the election on Tuesday, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy reminded them how things quickly turned upside down for Democrats after 2009. The message? “The same thing happens to us if we take ourselves too seriously,” said Representative Peter King of New York.
Electoral mandates are inherently difficult if not impossible to discern. Voters don’t check off a set of policy preferences when they elect their leaders, and polls often indicate a disconnect between the people they choose and the policies they support. Americans routinely told pollsters they supported a higher minimum wage and immigration reform, yet they sent representatives to Washington opposed to those ideas.
For Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who narrowly won reelection in a state that Trump carried by a wide margin, the easiest answer is the simplest one. “The mandate that you shouldn’t under-read is change,” Blunt told me. The problem for Republicans, however, is that their vision of change did not always align with Trump’s. While House leaders like Ryan ran on an agenda heavy on conservative doctrine, Trump ran a more populist, anti-Washington campaign. So who has the mandate: Congressional Republicans, or Trump?
“It’s clearly a mandate for Donald Trump,” said Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, a conservative who dismissed the president-elect’s popular vote loss as “irrelevant.” Labrador said Ryan was mistaken to believe that voters had embraced the House GOP’s “A Better Way” agenda, which differs from Trump’s view of trade, immigration, and foreign policy. “The policy that they advocated is not the policy that the American people are really excited about,” Labrador said.
Ryan has already indicated he wants to pursue changes to Medicare and Medicaid as part of an Obamacare repeal, despite the fact that Trump opposed his proposed overhaul and vowed repeatedly to protect entitlement programs that many of his older, lower-income voters rely on. And conservatives in both the House and Senate will likely try to use their newfound power to further restrict funding for abortion and contraception and to reverse Obama administration policies favorable to gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans. “Donald Trump is the ultimate pragmatist, and he’s going to be bumping up against some members of our conference who can excruciatingly ideological,” said Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a Republican moderate. “I suspect Donald Trump is not going to want to dealing with issues like Planned Parenthood or revisiting marriage equality.”