Nov. 9, 2004

President Bush didn’t win a mandate, and nobody should wish one on him. In fact, the debate about mandates is downright silly.

Let’s begin by examining the pivotal word. When one talks of a “mandate,” what does it mean? It means a politician not only has won a political office, but has acquired something special in addition — the right to impose laws and policies on the populace — in other words, to make election promises mandatory.

That’s the plain meaning of the term. There’s a softer formulation as well. Pundits employ it all the time. They treat “mandate” as a surrogate for “legitimacy.” To say one has a mandate is to proclaim the person has (a) proper claim to the office and (b) moral authority to pursue some course of action.

Of course, no sensible voter thinks this way. This laying-on-of-hands stuff seems better suited to the selection of saints than the election of presidents. We realize that we are electing human beings, not gods, and that all of them suffer the same foibles we do. They are vain, ambitious, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing and emotionally needy. And we get to see them strutting across life’s stage, emotionally naked and neuroses jiggling like walrus fat, each and every day. These are not the sort of creatures who belong on Mt. Olympus, where they may hurl thunderbolts and decrees. They need constant adult supervision.

The mandate talk therefore is a great, big dodge — a classic case of rhetorical misdirection. Left-wingers cannot believe 60 million Americano hayseeds cast their lots with George W. Bush. The Larry O’Donnell Brigades say George W. Bush should not be president; does not deserve the office; acquired it by underhanded means; has polluted the system by taking the oath of office — and that patriots have an obligation to resist him at every turn.

Bushophobes don’t say this outright because they know such fulminations are boring. Instead, they adopt the “mandate” angle. They claim that he won by such a narrow margin that he ought to govern according to promises and principles other than the ones he presented to the public — and that he ought to show more respect and solicitude to the proposals of the loser, John Kerry.

If this makes your head swim, fear not. There’s a simple way to dispel confusion. Just remember what you were supposed to have learned in civics class:

Elected officials derive their legitimacy from a system of government that lets citizens pick their lawmakers. Officeholders do not acquire additional “legitimacy” by virtue of the electoral margin. (Had that been the case, Ronald Reagan should have been able to assume czarist powers, and Bill Clinton would have enjoyed less proper authority as the winner in 1992 and 1996 than Richard Nixon did as the loser in 1960.)

Therefore, we now are ready to explain the 2004 election result in a simple declarative sentence: George W. Bush did not win a mandate; he got a job.

The same holds for the opposition. Democrats have an obligation to work with the president when they think he’s doing the right thing and to resist him when they think he has gone off the rails. Our system of government, like the legal system, thrives on adversarial conflict — the clash of ideas.

So, to summarize: The president doesn’t have a mandate; doesn’t need one; couldn’t get one if he wanted. He survives on the basis of popular support and consent — both of which he needs not just on Election Day, but every day. If he fails to persuade people that he is doing the right thing, he will bring his party to ruin, and perhaps his country. Ditto if his policies backfire.

But here’s the magical part: Every four years, we get a chance to correct our course. That’s because we — not a president — have the mandate.

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