Another Election, More “Mandate” Madness

Two weeks from today, Americans will go to the polls to elect the next president of the United States. Whatever the result—and it seems clear, at this point, that Hillary Clinton will probably win easily—all Americans will, in a way, be winners when this monstrosity of an election cycle is over. Our regular readers will have noticed that The Mendenhall has been scant on election posts this year. This is partly due to our various other professional pursuits occupying our time. It is also the result of the truly disheartening quality of this year’s options and the entirely anti-intellectual nature of the debate on both sides of the aisle, with party loyalists tangling themselves in knots to pretend that they have not abandoned all moral values in defending their candidate and a growing number of alienated independents and Never-Trump-ers being branded as heretics for choosing to retain their principles. With the end in sight, however, there is one quadrennial fallacy that is worth putting down before the post-election flag-waving begins: the notion of presidential mandates.

As a matter of convenience and agreement on the related text, I will include the entirety of Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution (which is quite brief) for the reader’s reference:


“Article II

Section 1.

The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his office during the term of four years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same term, be elected, as follows:

Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.

The electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for two persons, of whom one at least shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves. And they shall make a list of all the persons voted for, and of the number of votes for each; which list they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates, and the votes shall then be counted. The person having the greatest number of votes shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such majority, and have an equal number of votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately choose by ballot one of them for President; and if no person have a majority, then from the five highest on the list the said House shall in like manner choose the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by States, the representation from each state having one vote; A quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. In every case, after the choice of the President, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal votes, the Senate shall choose from them by ballot the Vice President.

The Congress may determine the time of choosing the electors, and the day on which they shall give their votes; which day shall be the same throughout the United States.

No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years, and been fourteen Years a resident within the United States.

In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by law provide for the case of removal, death, resignation or inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what officer shall then act as President, and such officer shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.

The President shall, at stated times, receive for his services, a compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that period any other emolument from the United States, or any of them.

Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation:–“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The ensuing articles detail the president’s powers and limitations. Section 2 describes his role as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Section 3 describes his powers with respect to Congress and ambassadors, obligating him to give regular reports on the state of the union and to recall diplomats when necessary. Section 4 allows for his and the vice president’s removal from office upon impeachment for bribery, treason, or other qualifying offenses. As the official description of the most powerful office in the world, it is strikingly short at 1023 words, section headings included. Needless to say, it leaves out a great deal of the bureaucratic detail within the executive branch that has emerged over the course of American history and especially in the 20th century. Such managerial points were left to the sort of procedural evolution that fills in the gaps in all administrative bodies of states. Nonetheless, the relationship between the branches of government have always been viewed as sacrosanct points of constitutional design not easily suppressed.

Despite this crystalline clarity, it seems to have become fashionable in recent elections—and was particularly so in 2012—to claim that a president’s victory somehow confers upon him or her a “mandate” that mystically obligates legislators to do his bidding for an unspecified window of time at the beginning of the presidency. Despite Barack Obama’s having secured a narrow 51.1% of the popular vote, left-leaning commentators on election night were already springing forth (coincidentally, I’m sure) in a chorus of speculation as to whether the result gave the president such a “mandate” and whether it was time for Republicans to surrender their positions for a few months and—though they would never be honest enough to articulate it—essentially let the president rule autocratically.

In case there was any ambiguity to Article I, Section 2, above, the answer is a resounding “No!” There is no such thing as a “mandate” in American politics. Voters vote for their preferred candidate, results are tallied, and those candidates who are elected report to represent those who elected them based on the platforms they presented in the course of their campaigns. The resulting balance of power expresses the preferences of the electorate. As simple as this is, there are still those who do their best to find some end-around way of enshrining some perverse idea of a dictator-by-default.

Fading into 2016, with the election approaching, the “mandate” chatter is starting early. Over at CNBC, one author is speculating as to how big of a win Clinton must secure in order for her to enter the White House with bargaining power disproportionate to what would be her constitutionally defined role as president (which is basically what the “mandate” nonsense amounts to). In reading it, I get the sense that the “mandate” cheerleaders are conflating it with the president’s first ninety days.

The first ninety days of a president’s first term are often seen to be significant, as the president enters with a certain amount of popular enthusiasm surrounding the new administration. However, the electoral enthusiasm surrounding his or her election is presumably limited to the percentage of voters who voted for the winner. There is no winner’s multiplier effect. Even if the president’s first ninety days are as meaningful as the media hypes them to be (an assumption which is, itself, doubtful), legislators are no less democratically elected than the president and their policy programs have no less of a mandate from their constituents. If election to office is perceived as an energetic vote of confidence from the electorate (itself questionable in the limited, A-or-B nature of most elections), then all elected officials have the same “mandate” immediately following an election… which, in turn, means that no one does.

Further, if the significance of the first ninety days is the result of popular enthusiasm for a certain set of policies, then it should require no “mandate;” it would be the natural result of popular pressures that would be similarly reflected in legislative elections, bringing candidates into office who align with the president’s views. Put simply, if Kansas wants to endorse Democratic policies, it has the option of electing Democrats. Expecting candidates who were elected or re-elected on platforms contrary to the president’s to submit to him is not only bullying, dictatorial, unconstitutional, and illogical; it’s also plain old-fashioned double-counting of one’s winnings.

So if, in two weeks, the chatter sets in that Hillary Clinton (assuming, based on present poll numbers, that she wins) has some mystical right to rule and that legislators must bow to her all-powerful “mandate,” give the power-worshippers no heed. To the contrary, the fact that the president is elected in the same year as the whole House and one-third of the Senate is one among many brilliant strokes of our Founding Fathers. It means that newly elected representatives have a full two years before they will face re-election, giving them the utmost freedom to agree with or dissent from the president without having to face the electorate for the length of a full term. For senators, they will have six years—or, in political terms, a lifetime. This, in the end, is what the little autocrats secretly know. Despite all of their chest-puffing talk about presidential “mandates,” it is more true in the first ninety days after an election than it ever will be again that legislators are free to exercise the right that is granted to them by the Constitution: telling the president to take a hike.

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