The mandate fallacy

    Goodbye, at the very least, to Aqua Buddha, “I’m not a witch,” Connecticut wrestle mania, bestiality emails, demon sheep,
    “Taliban Dan,” and all the other sordid detritus of the midterm cycle – with a bonus farewell to clownish tea-partier Sharron Angle, who handily fulfilled my June prediction that she would be the “gift” meal on Harry Reid’s dinner plate.

    And with respect to the nationwide election results, let’s keep it simple: when the American economy is horrible, the president’s party typically takes the big hit (regardless of whether the incumbent party deserves all the blame). It happened last night – with the GOP racking up 60 or more House seats, and gaining at least six seats in a still-Democratic Senate – just as it has happened before. The lazy analysis is that last night was “historic.” (Sean Hannity on Fox: “Historic!”) It’s more accurate to say that the ’10 results are in tune with the basic historical pattern.

    When the Great Depression worsened in 1937, the Republicans reaped the whirlwind one year later, embarrassing Franklin D. Roosevelt by scoring a net gain of 81 House seats (still the modern record); he was so mortally wounded that his face wound up on the dime in your pocket. When the jobless rate was 10 percent in 1982, at the time of Ronald Reagan’s first midterm cycle, the Democrats scored a net gain of 26 House seats, and prominent pundits concluded that Reagan himself was toast (Edwin Yoder: “If Ronald Reagan were a prime minister and ours were a parliamentary system, he would be out today”); moreover, in the Rustbelt states, 58 percent of midterm voters told the exit pollsters that they didn’t think Reagan should run for re-election.

    In other words, critics of President Obama would be wise not to marinate in historical cluelessness and interpret last night’s results as some kind of unique event, as a momentous ideological sea change in the American electorate, or as a death knell for Obama. As the nonpartisan Washington analyst Stuart Rothenberg warned the other day, even as he was predicting huge GOP House gains, “Don’t read long-term trends into this election, or any other.”

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    Naturally, those misreadings have already begun. Various Republicans predictably declared last night that “the American people” had awarded them a “mandate” for limited government and lower federal spending (you know, the kind of stuff that Republicans routinely ignored when they ran Washington during the Bush era).

    But that spin is way too facile. The vast majority of voters stayed home, as always happens in midterm years – with the stay-at-home factor exacerbated by the economic undertow. The motivated midterm electorate was markedly older, whiter, and far more conservative than the electorate that shows up for a president contest (conservatives comprised 41 percent of the ’10 voter pool, the highest share ever recorded in midterm exit polls.) A motivated slice of the American people is not to be confused with “the American people.”

    As for the independent swing voters (28 percent of the ’10 poll), most swings tend to be results-oriented people who eschew ideology; the economic results are bad these days, so they basically said, “Let’s try the other team, maybe they can do something.” They used the in party as an outlet for their gut frustrations. If Obama had not walked into an economic debacle (thanks to factors that were baked into the cake during the Bush era), indeed, if Obama had enacted historic health reform, financial regulatory reform, and credit card reform at a time of economic stability, those swing-voting independents would not have delivered 55 percent of their votes to the out party.

    So there is no ideological “mandate,” just as there was no such “mandate” when Republicans took both the House and Senate in 1994, Bill Clinton’s first midterm. Conservative columnist George Will thought otherwise, writing a post-election column that must have sent his bow tie spinning counterclockwise. He declared the results to be a “resounding ideological statement,” and said that Clinton was politically dead, in the Jimmy Carter mode. One year later, “mandate” revolutionary Newt Gingrich tried to shut down the government, the public opinion sided with Clinton, and one year after that, Clinton cruised to re-election – in part because he worked with Republicans to get some results. Pragmatic American voters like results.

    (The economy was not an overriding issue in the ’94 elections, but a lopsidedly conservative midterm electorate was ticked off about the tax hikes in the ’93 budget package. Republicans claimed the package would plunge the nation into a long ’90s recession, or, as the young John Boehner foresaw, a “double dip” recession. Their claims proved to be a crock, but it helped get their voters out in ’94.)

    Indeed, there is no conservative mandate this morning, any more than there was a liberal mandate in 2008. On the eve of the ’08 voting, one columnist wrote that Obama would be smart “not to mistake a solid win for a sweeping ideological agenda. Victory would present Obama with an opportunity, not a mandate…and there would be little margin for error.”

    That was me.

    The current bottom line? Most Americans (especially those who skipped the midterms) want both sides to work together in fixing the economy. Practicality matters far less than ideology. The problem, however, is that the mandate mavens view compromise as akin to surrender. Sarah Palin plucked that chord the other day, warning that “anyone in the GOP who thinks they can cut a little deal here, there with Obama” might well “find themselves out of a job in 2012. We gotta remind these folks, in the next couple of years, ‘we put you in, we can take you out.'”

    It’s that old saying, Be Careful What You Wish For. Republicans wanted a piece of the power pie, and now they’ve got it. Now they get to share the responsibility for governance in tough times, while somehow needing to appease the tea-party crowd and the incessant bleatings of a former half-term governor.

    All told, given the polarization with which we are now burdened, last night’s vote for checks and balances may well portend two years of gridlock. Journalistically, the new political alignment will be a great story; I’m happy about that, as far as it goes. But it might not be the nation’s finest hour.

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