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.