Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Mandating Game

After (finally) winning the popular vote by 2.5 points, George W. Bush claimed victory in the presidential election and declared, "I have political capital. I intend to spend it." In other words, a 51-48 percent victory nationwide, along with a 286-252 majority in the electoral college, meant a second term mandate for W and his good ol' boys (and Condi, too).

This time around, Barack Obama received more votes than Bush (or anyone in American history, for that matter), won the popular vote by about 7 points (up from Bush's 2.5), and won at least 365 electoral votes from previously Republican places like Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and even an elector from Nebraska. Yet, as Jonathan Chait points out in the upcoming edition of The New Republic, apparently that doesn't equal a mandate:

Unlike Bush, Obama has declined to claim a mandate, and many Democrats have publicly said that he lacks one. And so, although Obama nearly tripled Bush's 2004 victory margin and did so without having to explicitly solicit the support of voters who disagreed with the core of his agenda, the conventional wisdom has quickly concluded that the public does not support his plans to make the tax code more progressive, reform health care, and the like.

You can argue about how important a role Obama's platform played in his victory. But, to read any newspaper in the days following the election, you'd think that Obama had to start crafting his agenda completely from scratch. "He ran on a platform to change the country and its politics," wrote Washington Post lead political analyst Dan Balz. "Now he must begin to spell out exactly how." Now? I thought that by the end of the campaign even blind and deaf hermits could tell you that Obama had a plan that could be found at barackobama.com/plan. I've resigned myself to the fact that political reporters don't feel compelled to familiarize themselves with the candidates' programs in detail, but they should, at minimum, be aware of their existence.

Folks, Barack Obama has a mandate. If George W. Bush had a mandate, then Barack Obama has the mandate to end all mandates. If a narrow victory across a red/blue divide (not to mention a questionable win in the critical state of Ohio, which tipped the election) was enough to earn "political capital," then, Barack, you've got some dough to spend.

Seriously though, I look at this situation the same way I look at the current Senate/chairmanship/caucus expulsion drama over Shameless Joe Lieberman: in life, and in politics, you have to pick your battles. If Karl Rove & Co. want to say that Obama doesn't have a mandate, and that the country is still "center-right" in spite of this year's big Democratic victory, fine: let them say it. It doesn't change the fact that Obama is the first Democrat to win men and independents in a generation, nor does it change the fact that the Democrats will go into 2009 with larger majorities in Congress than the Republicans ever had during that awful 1994-2006 period.

To have a continuing debate over "mandate or no mandate" is a waste of time and energy. I'd rather save my bullets for a fight over health care, or our Iraq/Afghanistan policy, or the environment. Let's not have the Left and the Democrats engage in a debate over whether or not Obama has more political capital than Bush did, or silly shit like that. As Leo McGarry once said, "We're gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy."

And as Bobby Kennedy said before that, "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country, and for our people."

Amen. Let's get to work.

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