Please, No More “Mandates”

Cue the incoming Senate Democratic Leader (minority or majority, yet to be seen) to be the first that I’ve witnessed this election cycle to begin the quadrennial tradition of self-aggrandizing predictions about the consequences of the fall election. Chuck Schumer, in speaking with Politico, gave the utterly unoriginal prognostication, introduced under the headline “Chuck Schumer’s audacious prediction“:

“We’re going to have a Democratic generation. [President Barack Obama] helped create it. But it’s just where America’s moving demographically, ideologically and in every way . . . . We’ll have a mandate to get something done.”

To its credit, Politico spends the remainder of the write-up questioning this “audacious” (to say the least) prediction. And rightly so. I realize that the notion that election results create “mandates” is a potent rhetorical and political tool useful in forcing through controversial legislation under cover of recent electoral successes. It’s also bullshit (again, in the technical sense). This calls for a short history of “mandates” following recent presidential elections.

In 2004, when President George W. Bush won re-election, during wartime, shortly after the most devastating attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor (and maybe the worst ever), against an incredibly tepid Democratic opponent, by a 2.4% popular vote margin; Vice President Dick Cheney “audaciously” declared that the country had given President Bush “a mandate.” Bush would shortly thereafter assert that “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” Clinton-run Media Matters, unsurprisingly, was there to give the lie to this rhetoric: “[S]uch pronouncements neglect important facts that suggest Bush’s narrow victory is far from a decisive endorsement of his agenda.” This “mandate,” most apparently utilized to try to pass much-needed social security reform, fizzled before the year was out with the President left smarting after watching his marquee effort culminate in his “biggest failure in office.”

In 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency to become the first African-American president, after having upset Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, and defeating American war hero John McCain by a comparatively sizable 7.2% popular vote margin; Time cooed that Barack Obama was elected with a “mandate for change” (and to make the oceans stop rising?). While this may have been a more defensible assertion given that Obama’s entire campaign essentially amounted to a (misleading) promise of “hope and change,” the implementation of this “mandate” resulted in “Congressional Democrats suffer[ing] their worst electoral defeat in decades” in the 2010 midterms. “History was made,” observed NPR of all places; and they were right inasmuch as 2010 was the biggest swing in Congress in over a half century. Democrats who supported the President were said to have “lost their legislative mojo, their larger sense that history was at their backs, that people think they are clearly in the right.” Probably most devastating of all, earlier that year a Republican won Ted Kennedy’s seat in deep-blue Massachusetts, largely seen as an electoral rebuff to the President’s efforts at health care reform which Kennedy himself had long attempted and lionized!

In 2012, when President Obama won re-election against Ward Cleaver Mitt Romney with a mediocre 3.9% popular vote margin; his victory was once again greeted with chatter about having a “mandate.” Joan Walsh over at Salon crowed that “President Obama’s reelection represents a victory for the Democratic ideal of activist government and a mandate for more of it” (she must have been sleeping through the 2010 midterms). The President himself “claimed a broad mandate for his vision on taxes.” What did this mandate amount to? The subsequent mid-terms were once again memorable for being one of the largest electoral shifts in recent history, with the Republicans picking up nine Senate seats to sweep into the majority. This mid-term also meant that, after both of Obama’s two “mandate” victories, his party lost control of a chamber of Congress which they had previously held. What a mandate!

The upshot? Politicians and pundits love to bicker about the existence or absence of mandates following elections. They are more obsessed with mandates than Will Smith’s character in Independence Day was with the fat lady:

But all this chatter about mandates is very clearly little more than delusional wish-fulfillment. So let’s just cut the nonsense, shall we?

10/07/2016 Update: Sen. Tim Kaine has now uttered the “m” word. Perhaps someone should remind him what Secretary Clinton’s unfavorables are – a majority of the country disliking you doesn’t exactly scream “mandate”!

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