It is a tradition in American politics that a presidential election is immediately followed by a brief, fierce debate over whether the winner has received a mandate. Customarily, the winning side insists its candidate won because the American people thoughtfully evaluated his platform and embraced it enthusiastically, while the opponents dismiss the result as a fluke arising from ephemeral circumstances and in no way authorizing any policy outcomes whatsoever. Because Hillary Clinton has maintained a steady lead that makes the outcome of the election feel almost preordained, mandate season has arrived early.
The shadow of the mandate now looms over every aspect of Clinton’s campaign. The size of her presumed victory will allegedly affect the mandate – the more electoral votes, the bigger the mandate. (Clinton’s own campaign is reportedly deciding whether to invest in iffier states they don’t need in order to beat Trump, like Georgia or Arizona, in order to win a mandate-conferring electoral-college landslide.) Ideological critics are already sniffing that widespread disdain for her opponent means that her election is necessarily mandate-less, since Clinton needs only to capitalize on her opponent’s failings.
Clinton is actually running on a specific program she has described in exhaustive and even painful detail, both on her campaign website and in a series of in-depth policy speeches. But rather than accept this as evidence in favor of the mandate, her skeptics instead argue that her campaign is too detailed. In a National Review column headlined “A Mandateless Election,” Cato’s Michael Tanner sniffs, “For all of Hillary’s 257-page position papers, does anyone really know what she is for besides a vague idea of higher taxes and bigger government?” Robert Reich, a liberal critic who supported Bernie Sanders, told the New York Times, “If she’s going to get anything done as president, she is going to have to have a mandate,” insisting that attacking Donald Trump’s temperament does not qualify. When the Times presumably asked Reich about Clinton’s long list of proposals, Reich replied, “Her policy proposals are admirably detailed, but they cover so much ground that their whole is less than the sum of their parts. She really needs to focus on a few big ideas.” Apparently winning a mandate requires just the right level of policy detail – either too little or too much and it goes away.
A mandate is an archaic holdover from the bygone age of weak, ideologically heterogeneous parties. Crossing the aisle was common, so if Washington believed that a president had run on a clear agenda, Congress might feel some added moral pressure to pass it. (This happened in 1981, when the Democratic-controlled House enacted Ronald Reagan’s economic program.) In other words, the mandate is a political norm, a broadly if not perfectly shared sense of how politics ought to be conducted. Like most 20th-century American political norms — “filibusters should only be used rarely,” “the president has a right to fill Supreme Court vacancies with somebody qualified and not too extreme” — it is disappearing.
The negative mandate of George W. Bush’s 2000 popular-vote defeat did not discourage him or his party from passing the largest tax cut they could; neither of Barack Obama’s clear victories gave Republicans any pause in opposing the policies he ran on.
The obsession with a mandate, in which the style and scope of a Clinton victory has crucial ramifications, complicates what is actually a simple series of binary questions. If Democrats control only the presidency next year, Clinton will direct foreign policy and implement federal regulations. If her party adds the Senate, she will also have the ability to nominate judges to open seats. If Democrats win the above plus the House of Representatives, they will be able to pass major legislation for two years (after which Republicans would almost certainly regain their House majority during the midterms). Clinton’s “mandate” is irrelevant. All that matters is the levers of power she commands.