What's in a name?
By John D. Turner
11 Nov 2004

Mandate. [n] (politics) the commission that is given to a government and its policies through an electoral victory. – hyperdictionary

Having won the election of 2004, both in the electoral vote and in the popular vote, George W. Bush has been re-elected by the people for a second term of office. And already, I am hearing people claiming that, while he may have been re-elected, he does not have a “mandate”, and thus, must modify his positions “to take into account the millions who disagree with him on the issues”.

What’s up with that? Does anyone seriously believe that had John Kerry won by an equivalent amount, we would be hearing the media saying the same things to him? What exactly defines a “mandate” anyway? Who gets to decide…the losing party? The press?

Nowhere in my reading of the Constitution does the word “mandate” appear. There is no mention of the word in the section dealing with the election of the president. There is no definition of presidential powers based on the margin of electoral victory. There is nothing that states how much of a winner’s political agenda may be implement based on how much of the electoral vote they get.

Article II, section 1 of the Constitution (later modified by the 12th Amendment) deals with the election of the President. Neither the original text, nor the amendment, mention anything concerning what does or does not happen when a president receives or does not receive a “mandate”.

President Bush won the electoral vote, by a greater margin than the last election. There was no court involvement in this election. While close, the victories in each state were clear. Thus, President Bush claims electoral victory. This was confirmed when his opponent conceded the election, and will be finalized when the electors meet to cast their official electoral votes.

Unlike the last election, President Bush also won the popular vote. While this victory in and of itself is meaningless, since we live in a republic and not in a pure democracy, it does show that over 3.5 million Americans who voted preferred him over his opponent. It doesn’t mean that they walk in lock-step with his every policy (any more than those who voted for Kerry necessarily walk in lock-step with him), but it does show a clear preference. And 3.5 million votes is not an insignificant number. Over 50% of Americans voted for Mr. Bush. That’s a larger percentage of the vote than Mr. Clinton received in either of his two victories. And yet, I don’t remember anyone saying that he had to modify his agenda to take into consideration the 53 or so percent of American voters’ who didn’t, by their vote, agree with his ideas on how the country should be run.

The fact is, an election produces both a winner and a loser. The winner gets to pursue his or her vision for the direction of the country for the next four years. The loser gets to pick up their agenda and go home. Better luck next time. There is no requirement for the winner to adopt any of the loser’s positions. Regardless of how many or how few votes he or she won by.

Having said that, this is the United States of America; we don’t elect kings or dictators in this country. The newly elected president still must get their agenda through the congress. This can be a difficult thing to do, even if the same party controls both houses, as is now the case. A good example of the difficulty a president can have is Senator Arlen Specter’s comments concerning Supreme Court nominations the day after the election. He basically told the President that whereas he (Mr. Bush), stated that the didn’t have a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees, he (Mr. Specter), certainly did, and that Mr. Bush had just better not nominate anyone that had even a hint of thinking about overturning Roe v Wade, or who is too conservative in his or her judicial viewpoint. It should be noted that Senator Specter, who is expected to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee next year, is also a Republican.

Just because a president wins office and has an agenda doesn’t mean that they will actually get to exercise that agenda. Real world events often intervene. President Clinton certainly didn’t have Welfare Reform at the top of his agenda when he took office. Yet it was passed and he signed it into law before the end of his first term, against the wishes of many in his party. President Bush wants to reform Social Security and the tax code. How far he will get on these worthy but ambitious projects remains to be seen; particularly since he has GWOT and the continuing conflict in Iraq to handle as well.

So don’t be mislead by this “mandate” thing. It is simply a political ploy to try and get the president to shift his course, and an attempt to mobilize public support in that effort. In the military, we would call this psychological operations, or psyops, if we were doing it in a foreign country. The purpose is to attempt to constrain the president’s options, and channel them down a path more acceptable to the losing side; to try and salvage something from the wreckage of defeat at the polls.

As James Carville so famously told Larry King during the Clinton re-election bid, “it’s a war, Larry, it’s a war!” These are the first shots of campaign 2008 on the Democrat side. Minimize the damage. Marginalize the opposition. Wear them down. Build public opinion in your favor and against the other party.

After all, the 2008 elections are only four years away…