The 51% Mandate

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By: Greg Mitchell

I have to admit that I am a little confused by all this talk of “man date” by Republican leaders in the days since the election. I thought they were opposed to same-sex fooling around.

You might forgive my confusion, however. I heard and read that word so often on Thursday my head is still spinning.

As Doyle McManus and Janet Hook of the Los Angeles Times put it, Bush aides “repeatedly” made the point that their man had won by such a wide margin he should be given full rein to institute new policies (or perhaps enact new wars). Did McManus and Hook consider this a bit overblown? No, they repeated the talking point, declaring that “Bush can claim a solid mandate of 51% of the vote.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial termed the mandate “decisive.” To the New York Sun it was an “extraordinary mandate.” Tom Teepen of Cox Newspapers called it an “unquestionable mandate.” Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post said the “endorsement” was “resounding.” Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard capitalized the word, saying that Bush’s Mandate was greater than the Nixon landslide of 1972 and Reagan’s sweep in 1984.

Peggy Noonan got so excited that she paraphrased Bush in his victory speech saying, “Honey, I’m not just going to lower your taxes. I am transforming the tax system.”

Now, where I come from (a “red” county, by the way), 51% is considered a bare majority, not a comfortable margin. If only 51% percent of my family or my editorial staff think I am doing a good job, I might look to moderate my behavior, not repeat or enlarge it. At the minimum, I would not assert that I was overwhelmingly popular.

Yet one reporter or columnist after another obligingly used the term mandate, after Vice President Cheney delivered it from on high on Wednesday. We’d expect that from Peggy Noonan (and more), but not necessarily from the many mainstream reporters who endorsed the idea. Here’s David Sanger in today’s New York Times: “Mr. Bush no longer has to pretend that he possesses a clear electoral mandate. Because for the first time in his presidency, he can argue that he has the real thing.”

Now, it’s true that President Bush got more votes than any winning candidate for president in history. He also had more people voting against him than any winning candidate for president in history.

As the Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt observed, it was “the narrowest win for a sitting president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916.” And a Gallup poll conducted after the election found that 63 percent of voters would prefer to see Bush pursue policies that “both parties support” compared to only 30 percent who want Bush to “advance the Republican Party’s agenda.”

I’ve seen the word “mandate” a hundred times since the election but I have not encountered anyone making the following point: With nearly 115 million votes cast, if just 140,000 had gone a different way in Ohio we would not be talking about who is going to replace Colin Powell in the Bush cabinet, we’d be calling for abolishing the electoral college during President-elect Kerry’s first term.

Lyn Nofziger, the longtime Reagan aide, observed in a New York Times op ed that while Bush “would like to think that the voters gave him a mandate,” this is not true. “The president and his people,” he added, “are deluding themselves if they think his victory signifed general approval of his record, even within the Republican Party…The fact is, such a mandate will come about only if and when the president can figure out how effectively to wield his clout.” Note: the Reagan he worked for was Ronald, not Ron.

Yet President Bush in his press conference on Thursday said he was ready to spend all his “political capital” on bold policies. It seems he now has new media capital to spend as well.

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