Does Hillary Need a Policy Mandate to Be an Effective President?

By
If Republicans can't beat her, they can always claim she has no "mandate" to advance her policies.
Photo: Justin Sullivan

With the conventions over and Hillary Clinton enjoying a convention bounce that may be the beginning of an enduring lead, it’s legitimate (if a bit presumptuous) to look ahead to another Clinton administration.

Indeed, one prominent conservative writer, the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein, is doing just that. And he thinks the Clinton campaign’s apparent decision to campaign primarily on the theme of Trump’s dubious and unstable character, while smart politically, could come back to haunt her after November.

Given where the race is headed, the most likely outcome of the election is this: Clinton wins as Americans reject Trump. But, despite a victory, she will still remain broadly unpopular and distrusted among a public that probably won’t have paid much attention to her actual policy proposals,” Klein says.

But it would get worse, Klein argues: A President Hillary Clinton without a policy mandate would immediately get into hot water with the left wing of her own party, which has developed revolutionary expectations thanks to Bernie Sanders’s campaign and the left-bent Democratic platform.

Is Klein right? I’d say he’s half-right.

The lack of a policy mandate is probably irrelevant or, at most, a problem Hillary Clinton cannot do anything about.

If there was any recent president who lacked a mandate it was George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote and only made it to the White House via a disgraceful intervention by a politicized Supreme Court. This did not keep him from implementing much of his domestic-policy agenda and then invading two countries (yes, 9/11 intervened and supplied its own foreign-policy mandate, but it’s clear in retrospect that the idea of invading Iraq was on the Bush radar screen even before he and Dick Cheney took office).

Conversely, Barack Obama won by a comfortable majority in 2008 after campaigning on a very detailed policy agenda, and secured a solid majority in the House and a working supermajority in the Senate. Yet Republicans and much of the media denied him any mandate on the fictitious grounds that all he ever campaigned on was bipartisanship, interpreted as meaning that he ought to abandon his own plans entirely.

So even if Hillary Clinton began each day of the rest of the campaign reciting a 27-point policy agenda, the results, if she won, would be interpreted by Republicans and hostile media as being all about Trump’s craziness. And in truth, it’s how well Democrats do in congressional races, and how aggressive they are about using the tools available to overcome obstruction that will determine what Clinton can accomplish.

Klein does, however, have a point about progressive expectations. It was never all that clear how Bernie Sanders’s policy revolution was supposed, mechanically, to work. Presumably it involved creating and mobilizing a “hidden majority” that included marginal voters and nonvoters and people who were voting Republican because Democrats didn’t give them a choice, etc, etc. But unless it produced a House Democratic landslide and another Senate supermajority as good as or better than the one in 2008 (all entirely delusional prospects for this November), it still would not have overcome entrenched Republican opposition. Some objects of the revolution, like the overturning of Citizens United, would probably require multiple Supreme Court appointments and extensive litigation, which take time.

So progressives ought to have tempered expectations of a Clinton presidency, just as they should have had tempered expectations of what Bernie might have accomplished had he won. But you have to figure many skeptics on the left who reluctantly supported her after she won the nomination are going to view any failure to chase the money-changers from the temple of democracy as a function of Clinton’s impure motives and associations on Wall Street.

The problem of unrealistic progressive expectations is probably not a top priority for Team Clinton as they battle to win the presidency. But someone should be thinking about it sooner rather than later.