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Politicians love to talk about a "mandate" when they are elected, as if the margin of their victory or the issues on which they ran their campaigns form a basis for governing. In fact, the only mandate an elected official has is to perform his duties.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) underscored that idea in the current political environment in a speech to the Senate:
"In politics, there is always a temptation among those who win office to think they have a mandate to do what they will," McConnell will say, according to prepared remarks. "But it’s important to remember that in this case the voters also re-elected a Republican-controlled House last week, and a closely divided Senate. And in a government of three equal branches, that’s hardly irrelevant. Most people may focus on the White House, but the fact is, the government is organized no differently today than it was after the Republican wave of 2010."
But the importance of not attaching too much weight to a political victory can not be overstated. There are many reasons people win and lose political campaigns, and not all of them have anything to do with the way in which they intend to carry out their offices.
On the leftist blog The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn argued in the immediate aftermath of President Obama's November 6 reelection win that Republicans and conservatives need to give in to the Obama big government agenda:
Romney and the Republicans had turned the election into a referendum on liberalism—not just the liberalism of Obama, but also the liberalism of Johnson and Kennedy, of Truman and Roosevelt. They proposed massive, fundamental changes to the welfare state and wholesale rollbacks of women’s rights, and challenged the philosophy behind such policies—the whole idea that governments should act to protect vulnerable groups and to guarantee economic security.
The Obama campaign was successful in painting the Romney platform just as Cohn does, as a "rollback of women's rights," when in fact Romney's plans were rather timid, offering optional entitlement changes a decade into the future. Obama successfully, and falsely, claimed that Romney had some problem with contraception. Romney repeatedly spoke of the safety net, and while his rhetoric was of fundamental differences, his actual policy statements offered little to distinguish them from the incumbent's.
Romney lost because he failed to run a campaign like the one Cohn says he did. No, Cohn's straw man issues would never win. Conservatives and liberals mean very different things by the phrases "protecting vulnerable groups" and a "guarantee of economic security," however, and Cohn seems to equate them both to good government.
Cohn goes on to describe Obama's victory as a fundamental shift of demographics -- minorities and women throwing off their shackles and reelecting a protector of the downtrodden and rejected.
In fact, Obama just lied repeatedly about Romney, painting him as an ogre, after which the Obama campaign did a better job of getting his voters to the polls.
As Real Clear Politics put it:
So Obama owes most of his victory margin to negative personal campaigning, while Republicans held the House despite -- or because of -- their opposition to big-government policies.
And even if you reject that analysis of the campaign, which perspective on the campaign is correct is less important than the fact that there is disagreement about and many different explanations for Obama's win.
We do not in fact know why voters vote the way they do. Anyone who has done any door-to-door campaigning or other retail politicking knows that voters are often irrational, using absurd proxy issues as their criteria for supporting one candidate over the others. Our system doesn't allow voters to say why they prefer one candidate over another, merely that they do.
Since voters do not get to say why they prefer a candidate, and since the candidates themselves say many things during a campaign, there can be no clear knowledge of why a candidate has won and another has lost.
To allow elected officials to claim a mandate would be to suspend our system of government. We have a system built with layer upon layer of checks and balances, intended to make only the most popular and obvious decisions easy. Mandates for recently elected politicians are not part of that system. To suspend the rules and let a candidate who claims a mandate have his way could have disastrous consequences.
As Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan told 770KKOB.com,
"Raising tax rates hurts economic growth and of all things we need right now, to prevent a fiscal cliff, prevent a recession, prevent a debt crisis, is we need people to go back to work," Ryan said. "There are other ways of getting more revenue into our government without damaging the economy, and that's the kind of thing we hope to achieve."
No one elected official, even if a presidential candidate were to win every state, is supposed to be able to carry out all the functions of government. How much less then, a president whose election depended on less than half of one percent of the electorate.
McConnell explained that every successful candidate was elected, and if one has a mandate, so do they all. Each is given confidence by the voters who elected them to pursue the policies they want to follow. We elect officials to office, not a king to a throne.
Mr. Obama in particular ran on issues -- the availability of contraception, continued funding for Big Bird, and not using binders to contain female job seekers' credentials -- that fail to describe a real policy agenda. To yield to him the greater authority on a campaign platform such as that is at once nonsensical and dangerous.
Our elections serve only to put people into office. They do not say what those people are allowed to do -- our Constitution and laws do.
Beware any official who claims a mandate. What he is really saying is he doesn't believe in our system of government.