The Corner

The Mandate Myth

“Yes, Obama won a mandate,” says The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn. Joan Walsh at Salon writes that the president’s “reelection represents a victory for the idea of activist government and a mandate for more of it.” Ditto Ari Melber at the Huffington Post, who says that Obama’s victory “marks the most decisive mandate for an assertive, progressive governing model in well over a generation.”

Memo to pundits: The founders of our Republic rejected the notion of mandates a long time ago when they put constitutional limits on executive power.

A mandate is a command. The Roman emperors issued mandates to their provincial viceroys telling them what to do. In old English law the mandate was “a commandment judicial of the King or his Justices to have anything done for the dispatch of Justice.” Chinese emperors claimed the “mandate of heaven,” while papal rescripts embody the mandatory power of the Pope.

A little refresher course in the American Constitution. Unlike emperors, kings, and popes, American presidents don’t have mandates in either a formal or an informal sense. Victory in an election confers on the president not a mandate but an opportunity to try to persuade Congress to do his bidding. In deciding whether to do it, lawmakers are answerable not to the national electorate but to the voters in their own constituencies. True, they may defy their constituents (on Burkean speech-to-the-electors-at-Bristol principles) to promote a larger national good; that’s what Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage was about. But if a lawmaker happens not to believe that a particular president’s policies are in the national interest, he has no obligation to acquiesce in a mandate supposedly conferred on the chief executive by the national electorate.

It’s called checks and balances and is typically taught in elementary school.

#more#But what if a president wins really big? In 1980 Reagan carried 44 states, won 489 electoral votes, and beat Carter by nine points in the popular vote. But he didn’t rest his case for his tax- and budget-cutting proposals on his victory. Once in office he appealed not only to Republicans but also to Democrats to support his policies (which he carefully explained in addresses from the Oval Office), and he asked Americans to let their representatives in Washington know of their support. Enough Democratic congressmen felt the heat (from their own constituents) to cross party lines and give Reagan the majorities he needed to implement his program.

To his credit, David Axelrod recently said that “mandate” is “a foolish word.” He couldn’t be more right. But too often in his first term President Obama acted as though he thought victory in a presidential election really did confer upon him a mandatory authority that absolved him of the duty either to try to compromise with Republican lawmakers or to try to persuade their constituents to embrace his causes. The leader who said “I won” to congressional Republicans who questioned his spending measures and who pushed Obamacare through without explaining it to the American people certainly acted like a man who believed he had a mandate.

Has anything changed? President Obama’s supporters are already busy spinning Republican reluctance to raise taxes in a broken economy as evidence of their intransigent “extremism” in the face of a presidential mandate. In fact Republican lawmakers, like many of their constituents, harbor reasonable doubts about the wisdom of the president’s approach to economic recovery — an approach which has produced lackluster GDP-growth rates and persistently high unemployment even as it has clouded the nation’s fiscal future, having been paid for with massive amounts money we don’t have. Last month the federal budget deficit exceeded a trillion dollars for the fourth year in a row; in 2011 Washington spent nearly $1 trillion more than it did in 2007, and will probably spend even more money this year and next.

If President Obama’s answer to this fiscal nightmare continues to be “tax the rich,” Republicans have a right to be skeptical. The top 1 percent of Americans already pay 37 percent of the income taxes. Is it really sensible to put more of their money in Washington to fund boondoggles like Solyndra? E. L. Godkin said that free enterprise is involuntarily the most compassionate economic arrangement because the rich “can secure none of their luxuries without sharing with the laborer, through investment.” If President Obama believes that Godkin was wrong — if he really thinks that Washington knows how to spend Americans’ money better than they themselves do — he bears the burden of changing minds the way Reagan did when he called for a very different approach to fixing the economy.

Because under the American Constitution, there ain’t no such thing as a mandate.

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