The Meaning of A Democratic Mandate

An op-ed by Douglas E. Schoen in The Wall Street Journal has hit a raw nerve in many liberal bloggers. He writes:

This election is not a mandate for Democratic policies. Rather, it is a wholesale rejection of the policies of George W. Bush, Republicans, and to a lesser extent, John McCain. But it is not, as poll after poll has shown, an embrace of the Democratic Congress, which has approval ratings that are actually lower than that of the president.

The American people are actually seeking a middle route: consensus, conciliation and a results-oriented approach to governance. We need consensus on how to best stimulate our economy, and how to get a deficit that is approaching $1 trillion under control. We have tough choices to make involving entitlement programs like Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.

We need consensus on how to provide unemployment relief, mortgage relief and most of all, health care for the 47 million people that are uninsured. And we need a bipartisan energy bill that combines domestic offshore drilling with an increased investment in alternative fuels.

There is some truth to this, along with perhaps a mistaken belief that the Democrats plan a course far more radical than I expect. I have had multiple recent posts, including the previous one, showing support for Obama coming from conservatives, independents, and libertarians. Votes for Obama do not necessarily mean total agreement with any specific liberal agenda, and it is true that rejection of failed Republican policies is driving much of Obama’s support.

A bipartisan approach which considers views from both the left and the right is what is needed, but this is exactly what Obama has been talking about all along. Despite the claims from the far right that Obama is a socialist or far left Democrat, Obama has repeatedly demonstrated moderation and a consideration of conservative views. Whether or not Obama apppoints as many republicans as Schoen recommends, he has signaled plans for an approach modeled after A Team of Rivals.

While Obama’s polices are definitely liberal, polls have repeatedly demonstrated that such polices are supported by a majority of voters, especially when often polarizing labels such as liberal and conservative are not included.  Schoen points out that Obama will not be able to accomplish everything he has spoken about, but Obama has also conceded this point.

Steve Benen is among many liberal bloggers who objected to Schoen’s op-ed. He writes:

I suspect Obama, given what we know of his style and temperament, would make good-faith efforts to encourage Republicans to support his policy goals. But Schoen’s advice seems misguided — if Obama wins, he should scale back on the agenda voters asked him to implement? He should water down his agenda, whether it has the votes to pass or not? He should put “conciliation” at the top of his priority list?

And what, pray tell, does a Democratic majority do if/when Republicans decide they don’t like Democratic ideas, don’t care about popular mandates or polls, and won’t work with Dems on issues that matter? Do Democrats, at that point, simply stop governing, waiting for a mysterious “consensus” to emerge?

This raises a point which goes beyond Schoen’s original op-ed. Who exactly do we include when seeking a consensus? If Republicans in Congress contribute constructively to pass legislation, their views should certainly be considered. Nobody would deny the value of bipartisan legislation when possible.

We have also seen periods in which Republicans obstruct for the sake of obstructionism, insisting that any and all Democratic policies must be stopped. In this case, no, the Democrats do not simply stop governing. This does not mean that they do not consider a wide range of views across the political spectrum. With many conservatives and libertarians backing Obama there are many avenues for considering other viewpoints. It is possible for Democrats to consider the viewpoints of those outside their party in crafting legislation even if the Congressional Republicans are not willing to work with them. The point here is not to please the opposition in Congress but to please the majority of people in the country. The lesson from the loss of Congress in 1994 should not be forgotten.

We are bound to see far more warnings along these lines to the Democrats assuming they do win. If they seek a radical far left agenda then they will be repudiated in two years. However reading further in Steve’s post there is no evidence of a desire to confiscate the wealth of the upper class, nationalize the means of production, or otherwise turn the United States into a Marxist Utopia. The desires from many on the left are far more reasonable:

I don’t doubt that there’s ample data showing Americans approving of the idea of policy makers working together. With that in mind, Schoen believes Americans are “seeking a middle route.” Here’s an alternative read: Americans are seeking policies that work. The nation tried it the conservative Republican way for a while, and it led to disaster and failure. Now the electorate seems open to the idea of a different direction.

The goal, however, is not “conciliation,” it’s effective government. As Yglesias concluded, “What Democrats need to do if they want to prosper in 2010 and 2012 is deliver the goods. In other words, return the economy to prosperity, avoid terrible foreign affairs calamities, etc.”

I suspect that a Democratic majority would wind up governing far more along these lines than along the lines being described in the scare stories coming from the right.

1 Comment

  1. 1
    Jerry says:

    I’ve written before about how Obama is a liberal pragmatist; he would prefer x, but given our current situation he recognizes that – for now at least – y is the best for the country. Examples of this are many and include his health care plan and FISA vote. Health care is the best example of Obama’s penchant to make decisions based on what’s possible now, while holding out the hope that more can be done later. It’s proof that he’ll govern not as an idealogue, but as a pragmatist. That’s exactly what we need right now. My hope is that by the end of his first term our economic condition will have improved to the point that he will be free to implement the first stages of a more liberal plan on health care (at least).
    What Obama has to do now is lead. Although the executive branch does not control the legislative, the Democratic Congress will do well to turn to Obama. And Obama should offer his guidance in the form of pushing for very strict reforms. The danger is that the Democrats in Congress will fail to clean up their act and they will fall – and fail – just as the Republicans have. Power does corrupt, but only if it’s allowed to.
    The upside – their opportunity – is to pull themselves up and demonstrate that they can lead this country. We could do worse than a cleaner Congress and an honest, capable President. Hopefully, if they do this, the American people will notice and we will end this unhealthy trend we’ve been in; the party in power self destructs and the other party takes over for awhile. The problem with this is that no long-term solutions are possible so the difficult issues are never addressed. In a way, I care less about whether my personal philosophy is adopted to solve our problems than whether those problems are solved. I believe, for now, Obama feels the same way.

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