Boehner resurrects the antebellum South
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is now in Williamsburg, Virginia, meeting with his House Republican conference at their annual retreat. The GOP House members have likely gotten over the initial shock of the November elections – in which President Barack Obama won more than 51 percent of the vote and the Democratic majority swelled in the Senate.
Though the Republicans lost House seats and their candidates collected more than a million fewer votes than their Democratic rivals, the GOP retained a majority in the House of Representatives. This consolation prize has allowed Boehner to claim that House Republicans have a mandate every bit as compelling as that earned by the president. Conservative champions Grover Norquist and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) echoed this claim.
“It’s very wrong to suggest that only the president has a mandate,” asserted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who knows from congressional mandates. “The House Republicans also have a mandate, and it’s a much more conservative mandate than the president’s.”
Many commentators lament the political dynamics that encourage House Republicans to resist the newly re-elected president – even when he proposes exactly what he promised during the campaign. Politicians can, of course, read election results however they please.
Political scientists, meanwhile, have long exposed the functional emptiness of electoral “mandates” in the American system. The father of modern presidential studies, Richard Neustadt, ridiculed the very notion two generations ago. Unlike parliamentary systems, where the majority party actually governs, U.S. policymakers inhabit a heavily constrained political environment – even when one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress.
Yet there’s more than mere cheek in the unprecedented claims of Boehner and other conservatives to what Gingrich calls a “split mandate.” They are pointing out a structural defect in American politics – and reviving a century-old theory most closely associated with defenders of the antebellum South, like John C. Calhoun. This thesis insists that different regions, different economic interests, different parts of the population should operate as concurrent majorities – restraining the will of a simple popular majority.
First, the audacity. The year 2012 hardly marks the first time a House majority discerned a national mandate from the myriad results of hundreds of separate congressional races. The victorious party in midterm elections has often successfully nationalized the race. It happened in 1894, for example, when the Republicans picked up 130 seats running against Democrat Grover Cleveland’s ineffective response to an economic collapse. And it happened again a century later, in 1994, when Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years – gaining 54 seats as they rallied behind Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” House leaders plausibly claimed a national endorsement of their platform.
But never before have leaders of the controlling party lost seats and claimed a mandate! You have to admire the brazenness.
Except there’s more to it than that. The Republican position reflects a fundamental reality of U.S. politics: Congress represents a very different electorate than the president – one that differs markedly from a simple majority of American voters. While the Electoral College somewhat distorts the race for the White House, over-weighting small states and concentrating attention on a few political battlegrounds, the popular vote winner has lost just once in the past century. Andrew Jackson was not far off the mark when he described the president as the sole representative of all the people.
Congress, of course, embodies very different principles. The Senate, most obviously, enhances rural interests; the 3 million people of Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming have four times as many seats as 38 million Californians. This goes a long way toward explaining why the United States boasts the developed world’s best system of grazing subsidies but fares less well in urban mass transit.
In recent years, however, these distortions have intensified. Not only has the casual use of the filibuster handed certain regions and interests a de facto veto over policies that national majorities support. But ever more sophisticated redistricting (along with the concentration of nonwhite voters in urban centers) has rigged the House so dramatically that the GOP could retain control of the House even though their candidates tallied dramatically fewer votes nationally than the Democrats.
More than the United States as a whole, the House embodies an electorate that tilts more Sunbelt than Frostbelt, energy producers over energy consumers, rural over urban, lock-and-load over cap-and-trade. It offers certain regions (the South and inland West), certain interests (oil and gas, for example) and important ideological minorities virtual veto power over national legislation.
Even when the House majority does not – or cannot – kill off policy initiatives, as during the recent fiscal cliff deal, its very presence shapes the political landscape. It defines the limits of the possible.
Before the Civil War, Calhoun decried “the government of the absolute majority,” warning that without efficient checks, it would be “the most tyrannical and oppressive that can be devised.” He envisioned a system of concurrent majorities; constitutional methods for minority regions and interests to block the preferences of a national majority.
In an odd way, the gerrymandered House, like the filibuster-happy Senate, functions as a brake on the popular majority that elected the president.
When Boehner and his allies claim a “mandate” for his House caucus, though it represents a minority of House voters in the last election, they display a kind of gumption not seen in American politics for a very long time.
In a way, on this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, they revive a divisive doctrine that that momentous conflict discredited.
PHOTO (Top): House Speaker John Boehner in December, 2012. and Senator John C. Calhoun in 1853 (COMPOSITE: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas and LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/Currier & Ives)
PHOTO (Middle Insert): Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich REUTERS/Rick Wilking
PHOTO (Bottom Insert): John C. Calhoun in 1952, painted by T. Hicks, from a daguerreotype by Mathew B. Brady LIBRARY OF CONGRESS