In yesterday's NYT, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) says -- clearly way off script -- "You can't very well claim there was a mandate in this election for tax reform."
I don't believe in mandates. Let me rephrase: I don't believe there is an objective thing one can point to as a mandate. And when I say I don't "believe" in them, I mean just that, because they are more a matter of political theology than anything. Let me add that I would have come to this same conclusion no matter who won on November 2nd.
A mandate presumably comes from the voters, but here's where we run into trouble. As an indicator of policy preferences, a vote is a blunt instrument. We have almost no information about why voters opted for one candidate or the other -- their policy on the naming of Macedonia, say, or how well the candidates raised their daughters. We could use exit polls to learn something about the public's reasons, but pollsters seldom ask the kinds of policy questions we'd like to know in evaluating the mandate. Anyway, we've had two elections in a row where real doubt has been raised about the exit polls.
No, the shape of a mandate depends very little on what the voters have to say in an election and everything to do with what the winners say the mandate is. There is a catch, however, and in the case of Bush's second term it's a doozy. One can claim a semblance of a mandate for only those issues that were debated during the campaign, ones upon which voters could conceivably have decided. A president in turn must convince members of Congress that such a mandate exists by convincing them that voters have given them the very same instructions.
Here's where Kyl had it right about the tax reform "mandate." He continues: "It was just one of many ideas, and it wasn't specific. There is no consensus in the country about what to do." If you didn't make a case for tax reform during the campaign and place some degree of emphasis on it, and in particular a case for a particular policy vision on the tax question, one cannot credibly claim to Congress that the voters reelected you to accomplish that task.
The catch, you see, is that because the Bush campaign was built around two thin ideas -- that Kerry is not to be trusted and that we should continue with more of the same next term -- he has little basis for claiming a mandate for dramatically new policy. What would the mandate be, that he would have captained that swift boat differently? (Feel free at this point to insert the voice of Mr. Garrison from South Park.) Flip-flopping is Bad, mmm-kay? The French, the French are Bad, mmm-kay? Ted Kennedy, Tom Daschle, homosexual marriage are Bad, mmm-kay?
Sure, actual policy topics were mentioned from time to time, but the president was so busy saying that we need to stay the course, and his minions were so busy tearing down John Kerry with innuendo and distortions, that they left precious little record of what they wanted to do in the second term.
So it's a bad sign when members of your own party after only three weeks question whether you have a mandate to accomplish one of your post-election goals. Clearly they never got the memo, either.