It was every progressive's worst nightmare. Shortly after President George W. Bush won re-election with a slim 51 percent of the vote, he announced to the world that he had won a "broad, nationwide victory." Vice-President Dick Cheney shortly followed suit, saying that the president had campaigned on "a clear agenda for this nation's future and the nation responded by giving him a mandate."
A "mandate"? Bearing in mind that Bush won the 2000 election by a handful of hanging Florida chads, and still governed like he had won a landslide, this stronger and bolder Bush hardly bodes well. Republicans are already talking about shoving through an even more aggressive second-term agenda, from simplifying the tax code to privatizing Social Security. One Bush insider told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times that Bush will "be a lot more aggressive in Iraq now. He'll raise Fallujah if he has to. He feels that the election results endorsed his version of the war." From the looks of things, the president's self-declared "mandate" is shaping up to be an excuse to do whatever he darn well pleases.
Or is it?
The concept of a presidential "mandate" has never been as clear-cut as some politicians like to think. Decisive popular-vote victories are no predictor of success. Presidents that won huge re-election landslides—like Richard Nixon in 1972 or Ronald Reagan in 1984—have often had trouble getting their second-term agenda through Congress. Conversely, presidents with marginal popular-vote edges—like Woodrow Wilson in 1912 or Harry Truman in 1948—proved themselves strong, effective leaders.
So what makes for a genuine mandate? George C. Edwards III, a professor of political science at Texas A&M, has outlined several conditions:
If presidential elections are to provide majority support for specific policies, the following conditions must be met: (1) voters must have opinions on policies; (2) voters must know candidates' stands on the issues; (3) candidates must offer voters the alternatives the voters desire; (4) there must be a large turnout of voters; (5) voters must vote on the basis of specific issues; and (6) voter support must be able to be correlated with voter's policy views.
It's not clear that Bush has met all of these criteria. True, we can assume that condition (1) holds—voters seemed to have very clear opinions on various policies—and the large turnout on Tuesday confirms condition (4). But beyond that, it's difficult to say. For starters, according to a post-election USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, 63 percent of voters said that because the election was so close, George W. Bush "should emphasize programs that both parties support," while just three in 10 said Bush had a "mandate to advance the Republican Party's agenda."
Let's look at Edward's other conditions. Can voter support for Bush be correlated with voter's policy views, as per condition (6)? Not likely. Polls have showed that Bush voters are woefully uninformed about the president's actual positions. A recent PIPA poll revealed that, by huge margins, Bush supporters falsely believe the president supports the Kyoto Treaty (51 percent), labor and environmental standards in trade agreements (74 percent), and treaties banning land-mines (72 percent). No comparable survey exists for domestic policy, though a fall survey for the Middle Tennessee State University showed that a sizeable number of Bush supporters in Tennessee hold positions inconsistent with their candidate. It would not be a surprise to see these results duplicated nationwide.
Finally, it's not at clear as to which specific issues Americans voted on—Edwards' condition (5) for a mandate. According to CNN exit poll data, the top issues for Bush supporters tended to be "moral values" and "terrorism." The small fraction of voters who cited "taxes" as their top issue only supported Bush by 57 percent. "Health care" and "Economy/Jobs" voters went for Kerry by overwhelming margins. And virtually no one cited Social Security as a top issue. So it's not clear that Bush has anything resembling popular support for his domestic agenda. If anything, Republicans could well face a popular backlash should they try to overstep their bounds—as Bill Clinton did in 1994 with his health care plan.
Of course, Edwards' argument may overstate the importance of popular support. A "mandate" like Bush's may simply be whatever he can push through Congress. And with a 55-seat majority in the Senate and near-totalitarian control over the House, the president is in a strong position to ignore whatever the will of the people may be and get his agenda passed.
President Bush already commands a high degree of loyalty from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (who owes the president his job) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Moreover, conservative advocacy groups like the Club for Growth may well mount challenges against moderate Republicans up for re-election. Recall that the only Republican incumbent to nearly lose re-election in 2004 was Arlen Specter, during a primary challenge by hard-right Republicans. With that in mind, there's every incentive for moderate Republicans to toe the party line even more closely this time around.
The positive news for the Democrats is that, while their position was weakened in Congress, it wasn't weakened by that much. Fake Republican Sen. Zell Miller (D-GA) was replaced with a real Republican—a wash. In Lousiana, John Breaux, a Democrat who supported much of Bush's first-term agenda, will be replaced with a Republican—another wash. Other than that, the Republicans gained four seats (South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, South Dakota) and lost two seats (Colorado, Illinois). That's a slightly bigger majority, but it's certainly no guarantee that Republican legislation like the much-ballyhooed energy bill—which was sunk by the 108th Congress—is suddenly a lock to pass.
Democrats in the Senate still have the ability to filibuster Republican legislation, though much of that depends on how unified the minority party can remain. No doubt Democrats are already nervously looking ahead to 2006, when a number of swing-state Senators—Kent Conrad (ND), Ben Nelson (NE), Mark Dayton (MN), Debbie Stabenow (MI), Bill Nelson (FL), and Herbert Kohl (D-WI)—are up for re-election. Conversely, there are very few Republicans in danger of losing their seats. This sort of imbalance may convince Democrats that they should avoid blocking President Bush for fear of being tarred as obstructionist liberals in 2006.
It shouldn't. The reality is that Democrats will be tarred as obstructionist liberals no matter what in 2006. Back in the 2002 midterm elections, Senator Max Cleland of Georgia was ruthlessly targeted by the Republicans, even though he was one of the most conservative and pro-Bush Senators in Washington. Acquiescence wins few friends. In the long term, Democrats should realize that they will always be in a disadvantage in the Senate, since there are fewer blue states than red states. Expecting that cozying up to Republicans will ensure re-election is, in the long term, a losing strategy.
Still, the challenge for the minority party will be considerable. Bush's mandate, whether it reflects the will of the people or not, will no doubt go far in advancing his conservative agenda. As Josh Marshall writes, Democrats now resemble a parliamentary opposition that is in a weak position to block legislation; hence, their main goal should be to place "alternatives on the table that the party will be able use as contrasts to frame the next two elections." If they can do so effectively, Democrats may soon find themselves with a mandate of their own.