Starting next Wednesday, or possibly late Tuesday, we're going to hear lots of talk about the winning candidate's mandate.
Mandate discussions fall into two categories. If the speaker supported the winner, it's clear the voters gave the winner a mandate to carry out the exact policies the speaker thinks are most important.
If the speaker supported the loser, well, it's clear that the winning candidate has no mandate whatsoever, and voters really, really preferred the loser deep down in their hearts.
I first became aware of the mandate myth after the 2004 election. A flock of right-wing pundits unanimously agreed that the people had handed George W. Bush a clear, indisputable mandate'and then proceeded to dispute it.
- It was a mandate to restore traditional values!
- No, it was to impose Bible-based law on America!
- No, it proves the public supports W's plan to privatize Social Security!
- It clearly shows they're okay with Bush authorizing torture!
The only thing all the allegedly clear mandates had in common was that they reflected the speaker's personal priorities. I don't know of anyone who claimed W had a mandate to do something they personally didn't want him to do.
Nor do I know of anyone who ever thinks a winning opposition candidate has a mandate. Republican politicians were very clear after their Congressional gains in 2010 that their victories constituted a mandate, so Obama had a moral obligation to follow their program. Astonishingly, when Democrats took both houses of Congress in 2006, Republicans did not suggest the Dems had a mandate and that W was obligated to bow to the obvious will of the people. Go figure.
I've already seen columns asserting that if Barack Obama wins it doesn't mean voters support his policies: It's because he ran a negative campaign, or because everyone's scared of black riots if he loses.
Mandate claims have nothing to do with why the people put the president (whoever he turns out to be) in office. They're about rallying the troops ("The American people are with us, my brothers!") and hopefully trash-talking the other side ("Voters like us best, suckers! Submit to their will and maybe we'll spare you when the revolution comes!").
Even if mandate claims discussions were a serious attempt to understand the voters' wishes, they'd still be pointless. Politicians can squeal all they like about how the mandate obligates the other side to submit, but what if they don't submit? In that case, having a mandate doesn't matter a tinker's damn.
Just look at W. He came into office in 2000 with less of a mandate than any president in my lifetime, having failed to win the popular vote (proving my point, I know a couple of columnists who still insisted the voters gave him a mandate). He was smart enough to realize that becoming president with 49 percent of the vote still gave you 100 percent of the power. Instead of worrying about his mandate, he ran the country as if he'd been voted in by an overwhelming majority. The lack of a mandate did not miraculously cause all the bills he'd signed to disappear from the law books.
Whether or not next Tuesday's winner has a mandate is likewise irrelevant to what they can actually do in office, and what they should do. If voters gave some future president a mandate to bring back slavery, that wouldn't make it right.
But given pundits' endless fondness for analyzing and rehashing elections and mind-reading voters, I doubt the topic will disappear any time soon.