The Mandate Myth
Elections put the players in office. They don't dictate the outcome of the game.
Of the silly posturing going on around the fiscal cliff negotiations, the silliest is the notion that last month’s election somehow decided the outcome. Elections absolutely have consequences, since they put the players in office. What they don’t do is confer a “mandate” on the winners.
Yes, it’s true that President Obama handily won re-election. He got 62.6 million votes to Mitt Romney’s 59.1 million and won 332 electoral votes to Romney’s 206. It’s also true that Republicans under-performed in the Congressional races, losing 8 House seats and 2 Senate seats–despite the fact that 23 of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs were held by Democrats.
But it’s also true that the Republican Party retains a 234 to 201 majority in the House and has a strong minority with 45 seats in the Senate. And those Republicans got elected by pledging to keep taxes low and seek to balance the budget through cuts in government entitlement programs.
Beyond that, we don’t have single elections on single issues. We had 50 state elections for president, 435 district level elections for House, and 33 state elections for Senate. Even the Obama-Romney race wasn’t decided solely–or even mostly–on the issue of tax rates.
The Democrats clearly have the upper hand in the fight. First, control of the White House is a tremendous advantage. Second, because the “Bush Tax Cuts” will automatically expire on January 1, there’s not much the Republicans can do to stop reverting to the Clinton rates for top earners; the only question is whether they’re willing to take the massive political hit in also raising taxes on the other 98 percent.
Because of that, I consider it a foregone conclusion that Obama will get at least a partial win here. Either he’ll get what he’s asked for–a rate hike on those earning over $250,000 a year–outright or he’ll get some sort of compromise on his terms; I’d guess that the top rate hike will apply at $500,000 or even $1,000,000 rather than $250,000. And, just given the math, the Republicans will also manage to force Democrats to give more than they want in entitlement reforms.
The bottom line here is that we continue to have a system of separation of powers with checks and balances. The Democrats’ hand was strengthened on November 6 by virtue of retention of the White House and increased numbers in Congress. But they don’t have enough votes to pass any laws, including the one that addresses the current crisis, without peeling off a substantial number of Republicans.
To the extent that Obama’s policy preference is popular it gives him some Bully Pulpit clout to fight Republicans with. But the same election that gave him the “mandate” to do it also gave Congressional Republicans a “mandate” to try and stop him.
Correction: An earlier version of the post listed the current 242 to 193 House breakdown rather than the 234 to 201 breakdown for the next Congress that resulted from November’s election.