Take It Like a Mandate

How you look at things.
Dec. 8 2000 3:00 AM

Take It Like a Mandate

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If, in the next few days, Al Gore gives up his fight to recount additional votes in Florida, here is what George W. Bush will have won. He will have won Florida by fewer than 1,000 votes. With that 0.015 percent margin, he will collect the 25 electoral votes accorded to Florida's 6 million voters. With those 25 electoral votes, he will win the Electoral College by four votes out of 538. Meanwhile, he will have lost the national popular vote by 330,000 votes. He will not have won a majority of citizens, registered voters, or actual voters. He will not even have won a plurality of actual voters. His party, having lost seats in both houses of Congress, will be reduced to parity in the Senate. How, then, will Bush persuade Congress to pass his agenda? The same way he won the election and the recount: by spinning the illusion of overwhelming support. Here are his arguments.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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1. A win is a mandate. Bush says he was "successful" in the election, is "here" at the White House threshold, and has "gotten this far" because of his agenda. Therefore, his agenda was elected, too. "I don't think I'd be sitting here had it not been for the agenda," he argued on CBS Tuesday. "So Step 1 is to work with both parties to enact the agenda. And the agenda, as you may recall, is Social Security reform and Medicare reform, including prescription drugs, education reform, strengthen the military to keep the peace, and tax relief. … Step 1 is to go to Washington, reminding people why I'm there. And then call upon members of the legislative branch to come together to do the people's business. … I'm sitting here because I campaigned on some ideas that people heard." Dick Cheney made the same point Tuesday: "We've gotten this far and been successful because of the agenda of issues that we worked in this campaign, that those are issues that the American people care about."

To recap: Bush is here. Bush had an agenda. Therefore, Bush's agenda got him here. Without being here, Bush could not have won a mandate. Therefore, Bush's agenda won a mandate.

2. Bush has a mandate to unite America behind his agenda. Since most people didn't vote for Bush's agenda directly, he claims their endorsement through a sequence of inferences. First, an evenly split election result is a mandate for bipartisanship. (Never mind that half the voters wanted a mandate for one party and half wanted a mandate for the other.) Second, bipartisanship means moving the country forward. Third, moving the country forward means advancing Bush's agenda. "He'll bring Democrats into the fold. He's a uniter, not a divider. He clearly has an agenda that is not centered around a party philosophy; it's a philosophy that reflects his principles that he talked about during the campaign," said Andy Card, Bush's chief-of-staff-in-waiting, on Fox News Sunday. "We have priorities that were discussed during the campaign that he wants to bring to the nation's agenda and to talk with Congress about, including education, Social Security reform, Medicare, Medicaid, prescription drugs, budgets, and tax cuts."

To recap: The electorate gave half its mandate to Bush and half to Gore. You are a member of the electorate. Therefore, you gave half your mandate to Bush and half to Gore. Therefore, you voted for an agenda that is not centered around a party philosophy. Bush's agenda is not centered around a party philosophy. Therefore, you voted for Bush's agenda. Bush's agenda includes tax cuts and partial privatization of Social Security. Therefore, you voted for tax cuts and partial privatization of Social Security.

3. Bush won a mandate by default. Confronted with a 50-50 split in the Senate, Republicans argue that a government without a mandate would lead to chaos. Since Democrats didn't win a mandate, Republicans deduce that the mandate is theirs. "The message was not to have two chairmen of everything and have chaos," concluded Sen. Mitch McConnell, the head of the GOP's Senate campaign committee, on Late Edition. "We need to have one chairman of each committee, and that should be the party that is in control, and that will be the Republicans," thanks to Cheney's tie-breaking vote. On Crossfire, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, argued that the GOP must control Senate committees because the "principle" of "parliamentary democracy" requires that "one party must be responsible" to the voters.

To recap: You failed to give Democrats 51 seats in the Senate. You failed to elect Joe Lieberman vice president. Therefore, you gave Cheney a mandate to maintain Republican party-line control of the Senate.

4. A challenger who wins despite a good economy has a mandate. Bush says Democrats should support his tax cut because the economy is in trouble. "There are some warning signs on the horizon about the economy," he asserted on CBS Tuesday. "One of the reasons I fought so strongly for tax relief was to serve as an insurance policy against a potential economic downturn. I think the evidence makes my tax plan even more compelling." Thirty seconds later, Bush argued the opposite: "The reason I sit here, the reason I was able to run the race I ran against a sitting vice president—with what had been and now hopefully will be a good economy, and the world basically at peace—is because of the ideas that I talked about, including a tax relief plan."

To recap: If the economy is fragile, Congress should pass Bush's tax cut. If the economy is strong, Bush could not have won without a mandate for his tax cut. The economy is either fragile or strong. Therefore, Congress should pass Bush's tax cut.

5. A candidate who wins most of the states has a mandate. Since Bush didn't win a plurality of the votes, his surrogates divide the electorate into larger units of which Bush did win a plurality. "He has the support of over 50 percent of the states," Card observed on Fox News Sunday. On Larry King Live, GOP Chairman Jim Nicholson implied that because every state has certified its results, and those results have elected Bush, "Gov. Bush has been certified now in every state as a winner."

To recap: The candidate supported by the most voters has a mandate. All voters reside in states. Bush won the most states. Therefore, Bush has a mandate.

6. More people intended to vote for Bush than for Gore. Having ridiculed the unfalsifiable Democratic claim that more people in Florida intended to vote for Gore than for Bush, Republicans turn around and claim that more people throughout the country intended to vote for Bush than for Gore. "Had the networks not called Florida early that night, [Gore] wouldn't have won the popular vote … and I think Bush would be above 300 electoral votes," Newt Gingrich asserted Tuesday. Imagine what "would have happened in Florida had some of the networks not called it for Gore," agreed Jack Kemp. "Imagine what happened in California and a lot of other states. I think the popular vote was too close to call."

To recap: A candidate who wins the popular vote or the Electoral College has a mandate. If hypothetical votes don't count, Bush won Florida and therefore the Electoral College. If hypothetical votes count, Bush won the popular vote. Therefore, Bush has a mandate.

7. Bush would have won the popular vote if he had tried. When asked on CBS whether his failure to win a plurality of the popular vote made his presidency less legitimate, Bush replied: "Had this been an election on who got the most popular votes, I suspect we might have had a little different strategy. For example, I might have spent more time in my own home state … maximizing the vote here. … My whole strategy was based on securing enough electoral votes to become the president." That claim doesn't square with Bush's travel schedule or his ad buys in the campaign's final weeks. As Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times reported Nov. 3, Bush's "desire to affect the national figures, which influence news coverage, is one reason Republicans have spent so much money on campaign ads in Illinois and California, even as they acknowledge they are unlikely to win either."

On both sides, the election has been reduced to self-serving speculation. Gore thinks he won Florida because you intended to vote for him. Bush thinks he won a mandate because if he had intended to win your vote, he could have. In the latter case, you're supposed to accept two levels of mind-reading: Bush's revisionist account of his own strategy, and his intuition that if he had changed strategies, more non-voters would have cast ballots for him. Talk about divining the intent of the voter. 

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