Between all the “we really don’t know anything” and “turnout will be key” blather, CNN’s election panel last night seemed to agree on this: the result of the presidential election will be close enough to deny either side a clear mandate.
One can hope!
The idea of an electoral mandate is simple yet nebulous. (I’ve threaded the needle on this topic before, and looking back I have to say, the wish-thinking reads like … wish-thinking.) “The mandate notion assumes that the larger the president’s margin of victory, the greater proportion of the public has signed on to his policy agenda,” as Paul Waldman defines it. But how large is large? President Obama was elected in 2008 by what seemed like a healthy margin, relative to the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 elections, but his tumultuous first term would seem to indicate that, all things equal, a “mandate” isn’t worth having. You can blame congressional Republicans for stymieing Obama’s agenda, but recall that the first wave of the anti-Obama backlash occurred in 2009 with the capture of two Democratic gubernatorial offices, in New Jersey and Virginia. Then came the “cymbal-crash” of 2010.
Don’t get me wrong: Obama’s first term has compelling champions in Jonathan Chait, Zack Beauchamp, and others, but there’s a compelling case to be made that one of Mitt Romney’s most effective cudgels is his riff on how Obama ignored the economy and job-creation in favor of initiatives like Obamacare and green energy — in other words, the very things that Obama believed he had a mandate to pursue.
George W. Bush’s relationship with mandates offers a cautionary tale as well. Without having earned even the bare minimum of an electoral mandate — he lost the popular vote — Bush boldly and quickly managed to push through tax cuts with Democratic support, but then saw his presidency swallowed whole by terrorism and war. In 2004, he got cocky; he won a narrow majority of the popular vote and immediately began claiming he had “the will of the people at my back.” Bush’s reading of his mandate translated into an attempt to partially privatize Social Security. It flopped badly. Then Hurricane Katrina and a couple thousand more dead soldiers in Iraq put paid to that not-so-mighty wind.
There’s a view of Obama’s second term that says his chief aim will be to safeguard and consolidate the accomplishments of his first term: Oversee the phasing-in of Obamacare. Let tax rates on the wealthy rise with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Watch fuel-efficiency standards quietly transform the automobile industry and reap the benefits of the coming North American energy boom. Maybe strike a “grand bargain” with Republicans on Medicare and Medicaid — but largely on the terms negotiated in 2011. Others, like E.J. Dionne, see the potential of Obama going big on immigration reform and climate change. I wouldn’t rule out either scenario, or some admixture of the two.
The more interesting, which is to say unknowable, question is how Romney would deal with the mandate question. Would he, in the fashion of Bush in his pre-9/11 tax-cutting phase, simply choose to ignore his slim margin of victory and govern like he wants to? Meaning: will he and Paul Ryan go hard after Medicare premium support, and possibly wind up in the same shoals as Bush did with Social Security? Or, conversely, will Romney relentlessly focus on job creation and bipartisan dealmaking on tax reform, as he has promised on the campaign trail?
Turning away from the cloudy crystal ball: are mandates permission slips for presidents to realize their “vision thing”? Or are they monkeys on the back? The experience of the last two presidents suggests the answer is, both.
If the prognosticators of this election cycle turn out to be right that voters will not indicate a definitive ideological preference, I say that would be a good start.