Mandates are silly

Eight years ago, as an editorial writer for my college paper, I wrote a counterpoint against the idea that George W. Bush’s reelection gave him a mandate to pursue goals like the partial privatization of Social Security. I still think I was on the right side of that argument (and I could say history agrees), but looking back, I think I could have made a much simpler case. And now that another close election has given way to the usual arguments about the size, scope or existence of President Obama’s mandate, it looks like I have the chance.

Barack Obama won a mandate to be President of the United States for another four years. Which is worth a lot. But beyond that, any attempt to read an obvious policy preference in the election results would involve a pretty serious misunderstanding of how our political system works. The idea that the 61 million Americans who voted to re-elect President Obama were also voting to endorse his tax plan — as opposed to, say, his position on the auto bailout, or immigration, or killing bin Laden, or the fact that he didn’t insult 47 percent of the country — is just as silly as thinking that the 58 million people who voted Romney are all uniformly opposed to it. People vote the way they do for a lot of reasons.

Plus, they voted for a lot of people. Virtually the entire Republican majority got returned to the House of Representatives; their position on taxes isn’t exactly a secret, and their elections aren’t any less legitimate. On the other hand, the Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate, including new arrivals like Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren who could become some of the body’s most liberal members. On the other other hand, Republicans got Ted Cruz and Deb Fischer to replace relative moderates like Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Ben Nelson, so the center is really giving out on both sides.

The point is that trying to translate the national mood into a clear, intellectually consistent governing agenda is a great way to make your head hurt. We’re not a Borg-like collective consciousness that can turn millions of discordant voices into a single, implacable will. We’re also not a direct democracy, for very good reasons (more on that in some other post). Our constitution declares very clearly that the voters don’t get the final say on matters of policy; that responsibility goes to the people they elect. If the voters don’t like it, two years from now they can vote for someone else.

As far as taxes are concerned, what the voters want matters a lot less than what the members of Congress whom they just elected want. And what those members of Congress want matters a lot less than what Barack Obama wants, because taxes are already set to go up unless Congress and the president agree on a plan to prevent it. That would still be true if he’d won by 537 votes, or if he’d swept every state except Utah.

Mandates are the sort of thing that mostly only matter if politicians think they do. For instance, most of the great moments of political hubris, for instance, involve politicians reading too much into their victories: President Bush did it after 2004, and his party did it again after 2010. So far, President Obama has done a fairly good job of not getting carried away with himself, and he’d do well to keep that trend going.

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