No matter who wins tonight, President Obama or President Romney will have no mandate. Victory guarantees the president nothing more than an uphill fight to build consensus in a gridlocked capital on behalf of a polarized public.
“The mandate,” said political science professor John Altman, “is a myth.”
On this, even partisans agree. “I’m generally an optimist but it’s hard to see how there is a mandate for anything other than more of what we’ve seen the last several years,” said GOP strategist Mark McKinnon, who helped elect and reelect President George W. Bush. “There’s not a good scenario for how this turns out.”
“Mandates,” said Democratic operative Steve McMahon, “may not exist in Washington anymore.”
Here are five reasons why neither Obama nor Mitt Romney can expect a virtual rubber stamp on his agenda:
1. History: Altman, associate professor of political science at York College of Pennsylvania, said Andrew Jackson was the first president to claim that the will of the public overrode Congress’s constitutional prerogatives. Virtually every president since Jackson has falsely claimed a mandate without two key ingredients: a broad majority and a specific agenda. More often than not, Congress trims the president’s sails, leaving both the leader and his followers disappointed. “Presidential claims to a mandate, such as President G. W. Bush in 2004, are misleading to the public and the officeholder,” said Anthony Brunello, professor of political science at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.
2. Vapid Campaigns: Obama ran a hard-edged and negative campaign against Romney, hoping to convince recession-weary voters that his rival was unworthy of the job. Romney promised to fix the economy but offered few details about how he would do so. The result: Neither man has the moral or political authority to force his agenda through Congress. “To me, as a supporter, it’s been frustrating because President Obama had the opportunity … to make his campaign about something larger,” said Democratic consultant Carter Eskew, top strategist to Al Gore in 2000. Republican consultant Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, said Romney would have benefited from a more specific agenda. “It surprised me that he didn’t show a little more leg,” Reed said.
3. Partisanship: A concrete agenda and landslide victory might not even guarantee a president his mandate in a capital as polarized as Washington. Even among voters, party affiliation predicts a person’s beliefs better than race, education, income, religiosity, or gender, according to a Pew Research Center study released in June. Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Gore in 2000, said in an e-mail interview: “The only mandate that will be clear as daylight is to break the gridlock of Washington.”
4. Second-Term Curse: If history is a guide, a victory for Obama means he faces the prospect of a second term dogged by scandal or inertia. McMahon, the Democratic strategist who advised Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, said that if there is such thing as a mandate, it exists only in a president’s first term. “It’s even less certain in a second term,” he said. “Just ask George W. Bush who tried to [change] Social Security in 2005.” Democrats privately worry about the consequences of GOP lawmakers investigating the attack on a U.S. Consulate in Libya.
5. Right-Wing Worries: For Romney, the hard-right electorate that nominated him may rise up against any attempts to build consensus with Democrats. And he can hardly claim a mandate without Democratic help. “The question is whether or not he has left himself much room to be pragmatic,” said Ken Duberstein, chief of staff for President Reagan.