Opinion

The Great Debate

The power in a president’s mandate

The controversy over responsibility for the government shutdown has brought about one surprising consequence: a debate over the meaning of the term “presidential mandate.”

Republicans are asserting President Barack Obama has no warrant to call on Congress to fund the Affordable Care Act — since his victory margin in 2012 was so slender and the voters kept Republicans in control of the House of Representatives. The White House, meanwhile, is countering that the healthcare legislation was not only approved by both houses of Congress, and validated by the Supreme Court, but also was authenticated by his election triumph — after a campaign in which his opponent made hostility to the healthcare reform law his main point of attack.

“Presidential mandate” is an ideal brickbat in a political struggle because it is so carelessly used. Republicans who question Obama’s credentials today were quick to claim after the 2004 presidential election that, in then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s words, “the nation responded by giving [Bush] a mandate.” They ignore the reality that Obama gained re-election by a larger percentage of the popular vote than George W. Bush had received, and that his advantage in the Electoral College was 126 votes in contrast to Bush’s 35.

Journalists have further muddied the waters. After Bush’s 2004 re-election win, for example, an NPR reporter stated, “By any definition, I think you could call this a mandate.” Following Obama’s victory in 2012, however, NPR headed its website: “For Obama, Vindication, But Not a Mandate.”    So debased has “presidential mandate” been in the currency of discourse that exasperated scholars are recommending that the expression be jettisoned.

But to abandon the idea of mandate altogether is to conclude that, in a democracy, American citizens can never express their will effectively and to ignore those times when they did so. In the 20th century, there is no clearer instance than the 1932 election, which ushered in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s electrifying First Hundred Days of the spring of 1933 and the birth of the New Deal.

GOP’s path to Senate control is through Louisiana, Alaska

For Republicans to win control of the Senate next year, top officials in both parties say, all paths to a majority have to go through Alaska and Louisiana. In addition to being crucial in determining Senate control, the Democratic incumbents in these two battleground states share the same political and policy vulnerabilities.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu won reelection by 52 percent in the 2008 Democratic wave buoyed by President Barack Obama’s victory. Alaska Senator Mark Begich, even with those same Obama coattails and an assist from Justice Department officials putting their thumbs on the scale in his favor, was barely able to knock off longtime Republican incumbent Ted Stevens — 47.7 percent to 46.5 percent.

Since these Democratic wins, however, Republicans in Louisiana and Alaska have completely taken over the state governments — legislature and governors’ mansion. Today Democrats don’t hold a single statewide post in Louisiana. They couldn’t even find a credible contender to put up against Governor Bobby Jindal, who cruised to re-election without breaking a sweat in his 2011 landslide.

Clinton: The newest New Democrat

Democrats have a history of plucking presidential candidates out of obscurity: Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. Republicans are supposed to go for whomever is next in line, particularly if they have run before: Richard M. Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney.

It looks like just the opposite for 2016.

In the latest Iowa poll, Hillary Clinton completely dominates the Democratic field with 56 percent of the likely caucus vote (she came in third in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, behind Barack Obama and John Edwards). No other potential Democratic candidate gets more than single digit support. It’s Clinton’s turn.

And for the Republican nomination? The top choice of Iowa caucus-goers is “unsure” (36 percent), followed by Senator Marco Rubio (11 percent), Senator Rand Paul (10.5), Representative Paul Ryan (9), former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (8.7), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (7.7) and 2012 Iowa caucus winner Rick Santorum (6.7). Meaning, the Republican race is wide open. In 2016, Republicans may very well end up plucking a candidate out of obscurity. Hey, it’s worked for Democrats before.

Democrats: It’s the states, stupid!

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

Unless the Democrats wake up to the importance of winning state legislative elections, they are likely to remain a largely impotent minority in the House of Representatives and equally feeble in the state legislatures. The momentous Supreme Court decisions on the Voting Rights Act, same-sex marriage and affirmative action make winning these races all the more vital, for all these rulings deal with state action. The huge Republican victory in the 2010 election could turn out to be a gift that keeps giving.

The GOP electoral sweep in 2010 was no accident. Republicans understand the importance of the state legislative races. After the 2008 election the GOP adopted a strategy called the REDistricting MAjority Project (REDMAP). As Karl Rove explained:

“[S]ome of the most important contests this fall will be way down the ballot in . . . state legislative races that will determine who redraws congressional district lines after this year’s census, a process that could determine which party controls upwards of 20 seats and whether many other seats will be competitive.”

The real IRS scandal

The office for the Internal Revenue Service near Times Square in New York May 16, 2011.  REUTERS/Chip East

We just had five congressional hearings about the Internal Revenue Service, full of sound and fury, but, we now know, signifying nothing.

Despite all the hoopla and headlines about IRS personnel targeting conservative tax-exempt organizations, there is no real scandal here. IRS staffers acted not only legally but, given their impossible task, quite rationally.

Can Christie tackle the partisan divide?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in Asbury Park in New Jersey, May 28, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

How often these days do we see a political figure liked by both Republicans and Democrats? Not so often that we should fail to notice.

But there was the evidence last week in two different polls. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie drew a 58 percent favorable rating from his fellow Republicans around the country and 52 percent from Democrats in a recent Gallup Poll. Forty percent of Republicans in the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, and 43 percent of Democrats, said they like Christie. (The NBC-Journal numbers are a bit lower because the poll offered a “neutral” option.)

Democrats must overcome Clinton nostalgia

President Bill Clinton salutes supporters at a campaign rally Oct. 31, 1996. REUTERS/Archive. 

Democrats now delight in watching Republicans flounder as they try to free themselves from the failures of President George W. Bush and the extremes of the Tea Party. But the GOP’s tribulations should not blind Democrats to their own challenge. The party must free itself from the legacy of former President Bill Clinton and the centrism of his New Democrats.

Clinton’s successes in office have little relevance for Democrats today. The 1990s were a very different time both politically and economically. In fact, many of Clinton’s policies led to the travails now facing Americans. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution. And Clinton’s strategy of co-opting conservative themes offers no way out.

Seeking a smarter approach to the budget

Capitol Building in Washington, February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Sequestration grew out of a political impasse: Republicans refused to raise the government’s borrowing limit in 2011 without starting to bring spending under control, but Democrats refused to make choices about where to cut spending.

So the president devised sequestration, on the theory that cutting spending in such a painful and dumb way would force Republicans to raise taxes. Spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare was mostly spared, but other programs, particularly defense, got across-the-board cuts.

As a result, thousands of federal workers, including border security and FBI agents, are being told to expect unpaid furloughs in the coming weeks and months. And that is only the beginning. If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans in Washington can now agree on, it is this: The sequester must be replaced.

Party opinion usurps public opinion

We are witnessing the slow death of public opinion in this country.  It’s being displaced by party opinion.

These days, more and more Americans are inclined to judge issues from a partisan viewpoint.  In March, according to a Pew Research Center survey, twice as many Republicans (53 percent) as Democrats (27 percent) said the economy was poor.  Yet, from everything we know, Republicans are not suffering more economic deprivation than Democrats.

Elections today are less and less about persuasion and more and more about mobilization: You rally your supporters in order to beat back your opponents.  Republicans did that in 2004, when President George W. Bush got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote. Democrats did that in 2012, when President Barack Obama got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote.

Right-wing talk shows turned White House blue

Talk isn’t cheap, as Republicans have learned. The conservative talk show culture is proving expensive for GOP presidential hopefuls.

Since Rush Limbaugh’s 1992 bestseller “The Way Things Ought to Be,” his conservative talk show politics have dominated GOP presidential discourse – and the Republicans’ White House fortunes have plummeted. But when the mainstream media reigned supreme, between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won seven out of the 10 presidential elections.

Conservative talk show hosts and Fox News blame the “lamestream” national media’s “liberal bias” for the GOP’s poor showing since 1992. Yet the rise of the conservative-dominated media defines the era when the fortunes of GOP presidential hopefuls dropped to the worst levels since the party’s founding in 1856.

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