The Mandate Myth

Steve Benen strongly rejects the caution by Doug Schoen that “This election is not a mandate for Democratic policies. Rather, it is a wholesale rejection of the policies of George W. Bush, Republicans, and to a lesser extent, John McCain.”

I suspect Obama, given what we know of his style and temperament, would make good-faith efforts to encourage Republicans to support his policy goals. But Schoen’s advice seems misguided — if Obama wins, he should scale back on the agenda voters asked him to implement? He should water down his agenda, whether it has the votes to pass or not? He should put “conciliation” at the top of his priority list?

And what, pray tell, does a Democratic majority do if/when Republicans decide they don’t like Democratic ideas, don’t care about popular mandates or polls, and won’t work with Dems on issues that matter? Do Democrats, at that point, simply stop governing, waiting for a mysterious “consensus” to emerge?

The problem with this is that there are 304 million or so Americans, perhaps 130 million of whom will vote.  Let’s say that Obama gets 53 percent of the vote, at the high end of what the polls show likely.  That’s roughly 69 million votes, as against around 61 million against. Those 69 million people will have roughly 69 million different reasons for voting for Obama rather than McCain, with the overwhelming majority — if not all — of them disagreeing with Obama on more than one of his major policy planks and some substantial number having no clue whatsoever of what his policy planks are, aside from “Hope” and “Change” and “I’m not George W. Bush.”

For example, if we’re to believe his Meet the Press interview — and I do — Colin Powell disagrees with Obama on a range of issues but nonetheless preferred him to McCain on two major counts.  First, he thinks Obama has a more even temperament.  Second, he thinks Sarah Palin unqualified for office, thinks picking her reflects badly on McCain’s judgment.   If we presume that Powell, mutatis mutandis, reflects the average swing voter, how exactly does this give Obama a mandate on health care or clean coal technology?

Beyond that, as a practical matter, the concept of a governing mandate was perhaps last seen circa 1981.  Ronald Reagan sweep into power in the 1980 elections on a very streamlined, ideological message and swept in a Republican majority into the Senate on the strength of his coatails.  Subsequently, he used the bully pulpit to get much of what he campaigned on into public policy.

In the intervening years, however, we’ve seen the gradual demise of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, the rise of 24/7 global information, and the growth of the permanent campaign.  There’s simply no such thing as a presidential honeymoon any longer.

Did Bush get a mandate in 2004?  Did Democrats interpret his comfortable reelection as a sign that they were on the wrong side of Iraq War?  Or that it was time to privatize Social Security since, after all, the voters had just demanded it?  Of course not.

A President Obama would expect to get a gracious welcome to the White House, some nice speeches about putting our differences behind us and some nods to the historic nature of his victory.  This would soon be followed by bitter opposition, stonewalling, backbiting, undermining, and other business as usual tactics from the embittered Republican minority.

Conversely, if John McCain were to shock the world and win tomorrow night, Obama would give a tearjerker of a concession speech, say all the right things, and the Democrats would do the same thing.  The only difference would be that, unless something truly phenomenal happened — and even I’d be receptive to conspiracy theories at that point — he’d face strong Opposition Party majorities in both Houses of Congress.  So he’d have even less ability to claim a “mandate” than Obama.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Rick Almeida says:

    So let me see if I have this right.

    2.4% of 121,069,054 votes is a “comfortable margin,” but nothing Obama can do would result in a “mandate,” because those don’t exist anymore.

    Suppose Obama wins 350+ electoral votes and 53% of 170 million votes, plus the Dems pick up 7-8 seats in the Senate and 20 in the House.

    Will that constitute a mandate, or will you reiterate Schoen’s spin?

    I know you’re not a real political scientist, James, but seriously. Watching you mangle polls and shill for McCain these last couple of weeks has done you little credit.

  2. just me says:

    I don’t think it is necessarily a myth, I think the problem is that there is unlikely a mandate for the whole agenda. For instance, one thing I notice from most of the conservatives voting for Obama is that they seem to “hope” he will be moderate, and won’t necessarily go for everything on the agenda.

    I think the real mine field is figuring out just which things there is a mandate on, and which things there aren’t. The biggest mistake Obama can do is take office and pass something like card check-or even a sweeping legislation that nationalizes healthcare. One of the things that hurt Clinton when it came to 1994 was his move with regards to gays in the military and Hillarycare-because while a lot of voters wanted Clinton to do something about healtchare, they didn’t want Clinton to do what Hillary’s committee was proposing.

  3. Triumph says:

    Obama has already been dropping hints that he is taking orders from Kenyan President Adewale Ogunleye. So the only “mandate” that will matter is Ogunleye’s.

  4. Conversely, if John McCain were to shock the world and win tomorrow night…

    Legal challenges will spring up in courts all across the country.

    Yet another Democratic presidential candidate who was a lock will be heard to say, “How can I have lost to this guy?”

    Celebration parties all over the capitol will become dirge like.

    Heads will explode at MSNBC.

    Conspiracy theories will spring up at the Daily Kos that make Oliver Stone blush.

    “Some” celebrities will threaten to leave the country. Again.

    It will be Selma all over again. Or Vietnam. Or something.

    Senator Obama can go back to his day job. At least until he starts preparing for 2012.

    There are high fives all around at the Clinton compound. At least until she starts preparing for 2012.

    Blood will flow in the streets.

    Yada.

    Yada.

    Yada.

  5. JSBolton says:

    A left that uses economic, financial and pension panic-mongering should draw out a big negative reaction. The line about ‘guilt by association’ is invalid, since the voters as such, do not indict, but trust or distrust. There must be no presumption of innocence regarding our highest security clearance; not when the candidates are applicants for it.

  6. Floyd says:

    Unless you are some kind of political “newbie”, you already KNOW that a ONE VOTE MARGIN will equal a mandate if Obama wins….
    A landslide of Quranical proportions![lol]
    It will be seen , not just as a mandate for Democrat policies but as an endorsement of the radical marxist left element that has ruined the party.Of course it will in fact be neither!
    Just watch and deny!

  7. James says:

    The biggest mistake Obama can do is take office and pass something like card check-or even a sweeping legislation that nationalizes healthcare.

    My God man. Where do you rightwingers get this stuff? No serious politician, including Obama, is proposing anything remotely like “nationalizing healthcare.” For two long years the discussion has been about extending health INSURANCE and how to do that; health INSURANCE through existing private health INSURERS, mind you, providing health care through private health PROVIDERS. Even Medicaid and Medicare do that.

    And WTH is this “card check”? Where the hell do you get this kind of looney crap?

  8. anjin-san says:

    I would not be surprised to see Obama tack to the middle to a greater degree than expected. He’s smart, and he knows that Clinton and Reagan were both very successful governing more towards the center. Both men had some core beliefs that tilted left and right respectively, but they were pragmatic. Its a good approach.

  9. capital L says:

    “Suppose Obama wins 350+ electoral votes and 53% of 170 million votes, plus the Dems pick up 7-8 seats in the Senate and 20 in the House.

    Will that constitute a mandate, or will you reiterate Schoen’s spin?”

    Wow, talk about missing the point. If a Republican won 53% of the vote, would you proclaim that a mandate? Or would you point out that 47% of the voters were against said Republican? I suspect you’d do the latter.

  10. just me says:

    And WTH is this “card check”? Where the hell do you get this kind of looney crap?

    Are you really asking this?

    The unions have been pressuring for this since the democrats took over congress, and there are a lot of congress members who support it and it is on Pelosi’s agenda to pass at some point.

    The question is if Obama is given a bill does he sign it? And will it be wise? Actually I think that is the real question-what kinds of bills will his democratic congress send him and what is he going to veto because it is too far to the left? My bet is he pulls a GWB and loses the veto pen.

  11. James says:

    ///And WTH is this “card check”? Where the hell do you get this kind of looney crap?

    Are you really asking this?

    The unions have been pressuring for this since the democrats took over congress, and there are a lot of congress members who support it and it is on Pelosi’s agenda to pass at some point.

    You are just unbelievably misinformed. Are you talking about some kind of mandated union membership or something? That is so completely preposterous that I can’t even imagine where you are hearing this kind of looney idea. You have no idea what you are talking about. Believe me when I tell you that mandatory union cards aren’t on ANYONE’s so-called agenda.

    Perhaps if you widened the scope of your reading material you would not only benefit yourself, but you would not be further discrediting your Republican Party as the party of the willingly misinformed and intentionally obtuse.

  12. Bithead says:

    Steve Benen strongly rejects the caution by Doug Schoen that “This election is not a mandate for Democratic policies. Rather, it is a wholesale rejection of the policies of George W. Bush, Republicans, and to a lesser extent, John McCain.”

    Of COURSE he does.
    (sigh)

    Frankly, James, I stopped taking Benen seriously some months ago.

  13. James (not Joyner), you don’t even seem to know what card-check is, so I’d be a little more circumspect in calling other people unbelievably misinformed. And perhaps you are unaware of the number of private providers that will no longer accept Medicare or Medicaid because of the government mandated compensation levels.

    Frankly, you seem to be quite believably misinformed.