Does an Electoral Mandate for Clinton Matter?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Liberals are worried that Hillary Clinton will move to the right when she becomes president.  It is, in fact, inevitable that the next President Clinton will disappoint liberals like me, probably quite often, but that might not say anything bad about Clinton.  The question is why she will end up making such decisions, and the answer will tell us a lot more about the state of American politics than it does about Clinton herself.

Think of the possible reasons that a candidate who runs on a progressive platform might later make decisions that disappoint her base.  She might not really be committed to that platform at all.  Or she might be weakly committed to it but too willing to compromise without expending much effort to get a better outcome.  Or she might drive a hard bargain but ultimately decide that she cannot do better than achieve a half-measure, which is better than nothing at all.

As I will explain in a forthcoming column, I think that the last possibility is the most likely.  Admittedly, however, all three possibilities are plausible scenarios under a Clinton presidency.  But there is one argument that makes no sense at all.  In a classic bit of inside-the-beltway agonizing, we are now hearing that Hillary Clinton will win, but she will move to the right because she will have the wrong kind of mandate.

The notion of an electoral mandate is tantalizing to people who live and breathe politics but who have no other particular expertise or reason for being engaged in politics.  Everything is about who is winning the horse race, who has won "the money primary," and all of the stultifying talk that fills cable news shows in the now-endless American presidential campaign.  Discussing ineffable things like momentum and gravitas fills their days, and fantastical notions like mandates fit this worldview.

Surprisingly, however, the mandate fantasy even afflicts people who should know better.  A recent article in The New York Times quotes Labor Secretary Robert Reich, a professor at Berkeley whose liberal credentials are unimpeachable, fretting that "[i]f she’s going to get anything done as president, she is going to have to have a mandate."

As the rest of that article explains, the worry among Reich and others is that by running too much against Donald Trump rather than running for her own liberal platform, Clinton will be left after the election without the ability to say that the public supports her agenda.  Supposedly, Clinton's opponents will then be able to say, "You didn't win so much as you benefited from his loss.  But we don't have to listen to you now that you're the accidental president, because the public does not support your policies."

Of course, the concept of an electoral mandate is not entirely fatuous.  When a candidate wins big after running on one issue, or at most a small set of issues, she can reasonably say that the people have spoken.  And if her coattails bring in large numbers of members of her party, she has an even stronger basis on which to say, "The people have spoken, now let me do their work."

The concern expressed by Reich and some other liberals is that Clinton is cozying up too much to never-Trump Republicans.  And if that is a problem, it is surely going to get worse, because I could easily imagine a roll-out of even more Republican stars endorsing Clinton over the next few months.  Picture a campaign commercial airing in late October, with George, Barbara, George W., and Jeb Bush saying, "For the good of America, we support Hillary Clinton."  The Bushes are Republican to the core, but they hate Donald Trump.

Will that turn Clinton into a Republican?  Does being endorsed by conservatives undermine Clinton's ability to do liberal things as president?  Benjamin Jealous, a former president of the N.A.A.C.P., has argued that "Secretary Clinton’s decision to aggressively court Mitt Romney’s base has her looking more and more like Mitt Romney every day."

Unless Jealous merely means that Romney has stood next to many of the people who are now "with her," then he is simply wrong.  It is entirely reasonable for life-long Republicans to say that Donald Trump would be a disaster as president.  That group would be comprised almost entirely of people whose views Clinton firmly rejects.  She does not become more like Romney simply by pursuing and welcoming their support.

How can it be a problem for Clinton if even her longstanding opponents say, "You know, I have strong but reasonable disagreements with her, but Trump is a threat to the future of the world"?  Is it not a good thing when patriots stand up and say that some things go beyond partisanship and policy differences?

Huey Long, the infamous Louisiana demagogue to whom Trump is sometimes compared, came to power by touting views that can reasonably be called liberal.  But if he had been the Democratic nominee in 1932 against Herbert Hoover, it would have been reasonable for many Democrats to flee from their nominee and endorse Hoover.  They would have done so, of course, fully knowing that this choice meant that Hoover would serve for four more years, and that he would have tried to pursue his agenda.  That would have been bad, but it would still have been far better than electing a would-be tyrant.

Even so, Clinton's being endorsed by so many conservative Republicans might make it impossible to disentangle their reluctant support from voters' support for increasing the minimum wage, making college education affordable, and so on.  Will she be able to pursue her progressive platform, or will she be beholden to her conservative endorsers?

In short, the concern of the moment is apparently that Clinton needs not just a big win, but the right kind of big win, in order to have a mandate to do what liberals want her to do.  Without that, people like Reich worry, will she be neutralized politically?

As good as mandates sound in theory, the reality has always been more complicated.  In the last few decades, the notion of a mandate has become almost impossible to define or defend, because the reality of divided government makes it possible for opponents to say, "Well, we won our elections, too, and we're against everything that this president favors."

In 2012, President Obama won a surprisingly large Electoral College majority, and Democrats picked up seats in both houses of Congress.  Republicans, led by then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, announced that they would use every lever possible to obstruct Obama, and they have carried through with a vengeance.

Even after Obama' strong win in 2008, backed by a Democratic majority in the House and sixty Democrats in the Senate, Republicans did everything possible to hobble Obama's agenda.  Obama and the Democrats complained that they had a mandate (in the face of an economic cataclysm that could easily have turned into a second Great Depression), but to no avail.

In 2004, the last time the Republicans won a presidential election, George W. Bush's margin was razor-thin.  Yet Dick Cheney declared that the election was their last "accountability moment" and proceeded to govern as if they had won by Rooseveltian majorities.

Even after the disputed 2000 election, Republicans could be found on talk shows saying that "the American people voted for George W. Bush for a reason, and the Democrats should get out of the way."  This was monumentally absurd, because (a) the majority of American voters had not voted for Bush (even setting aside the Florida fiasco), and (b) Bush had not actually run a campaign that could tell us what that "reason" was that Americans should vote for him.

Squishy, content-free notions like "compassionate conservatism" are hardly the basis of a legislative mandate.  That Democrats did not stand up to the Bush Administration under those circumstances is to their great discredit.

The only plausible conclusion, except in the most unusual circumstances, is that mandates exist entirely in the imaginations of pundits and some politicians.  Democrats too easily roll over to Republican non-mandates, and Republicans could not care less when Democrats claim to be doing the people's work.

Republicans will never believe in a Democratic mandate, and certainly not one for Hillary Clinton.  Even if she were to distance herself from never-Trumpers, in the dangerous pursuit of a "pure" win, Republicans would still say that the voters do not support her policy agenda.

In short, this election is all about Donald Trump, whether we like it or not.  And even so, President Hillary Clinton was never going to face a compliant Republican party, no matter what.  Democrats like to think that there are still ways to get Republicans not to play pure power politics, but that is wishful thinking.

After Clinton wins this election, Republicans will surely claim that they must oppose her by any means necessary.  Pretending that she is undermining her possible mandate by accepting the endorsements of conservatives now is simply ridiculous.