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When does a politician have a mandate from the voters?

Let’s try to answer that question by examining what happened with the health-care law, recent events in Wisconsin and our own budget debate.

President Obama, Wisconsin Gov. Walker, Minnesota Gov. Dayton
Jim Young/Darren Hauck/James Nord
President Obama, Wisconsin Gov. Walker, Minnesota Gov. Dayton

If a candidate wins an election, does he have a mandate from the electorate to implement his program? Should the opposition respect such a mandate or, if the opposition doesn’t like the program, should they use every means at their disposal to prevent its enactment?

This is a test. If you are a liberal Dem who was outraged at the lengths to which congressional Repubs went to block the big health-care bill last year, were you also outraged by the lengths to which the Dem caucus of the Wisconsin Legislature went in an attempt to prevent the enactment of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget, including its evisceration of the bargaining power of public employee unions?

But wait. This is also a test. If you are a conservative who was outraged by the Wisconsin senators skedaddling across the state line, did you have any problems with the filibustering and other delaying tactics that your side used against the health care bill? Did you or any of your leaders ever say: Look, we don’t like the dang bill, but they ran on it and they won and they’ve got majorities in both houses of Congress so we’ll just have to let democracy work and try to win the next election so we can improve health care policy?

Because I don’t recall hearing it. I mostly recall hearing from your side that Obama and the Dems were “ramming” his health care down the throats of the American people (which is a fairly strange claim to make about a president and a party that got the power to effect said “ramming” by winning elections).

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Of course, the ram-it-down-our-throats line was based substantially on polls showing that the public didn’t like the health care bill as it made its way through the Washington sausage factory. But if a couple of polls cancel your mandate, then Gov. Walker is in pretty serious trouble, since polls have shown that after catching his act most Wisconsinites wish they had elected his opponent.

In another poll, cheeseheads said by a 2-1 that they wanted Walker to compromise with the unions.

Just hypocrites?
So are we mostly just hypocrites on both sides who believe in mandates when we win elections and believe in filibusters and skedaddling when we lose?

Whichever side of the partisan/ideological/tribal divide you inhabit, there’s some quibbling you probably want to do with the hideous moral equivalencies above. For example, if you’re a Dem you may be wanting to note that while Obama ran on health care, Walker cannot produce any evidence that he talked during his campaign about his plan for gutting collective bargaining. You can’t claim an election victory is a mandate to do something for which you didn’t campaign.

I bounced this one off a righty friend of mine (bad habit of mine) who paid quite a bit of attention to the Walker campaign and darned if he didn’t have a pretty good comeback. He agreed that Walker didn’t specify his plans on collective bargaining but said that no one who paid attention could have had any doubt that Walker planned on going after public employee unions. We’re zoning in on the question of how precisely you have to campaign on something to claim a mandate.

And then he hit me with a right hook. Obama campaigned quite explicitly against an individual mandate as part of the health care makeover. It was his main health care difference with Hillary Clinton during the primaries, and the two argued about it a lot. The individual mandate, which Obama did end up supporting, is now the linchpin of the aginners argument that the whole bill is unconstitutional, and many of the bill’s defenders say the whole reform will collapse if the mandate is removed. So how much does the mandate make the bill into something other than what Obama had a mandate to do? This argument can run a little thin, but it loosened my perch on my high horse.

Of course, if you are a Walker fan, you probably want to say that Repub tactics against Obamacare were normal filibusters while the Wisconsin Dem Sen. skedaddle was more like a dereliction of duty.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to say that hiding out in a neighboring state to deprive the Senate from having enough members present to vote on the bill is exactly the moral equivalent of the filibuster. But I would say that both are methods of delaying a vote because you know that you would lose. And the skedaddle was not unprecedented (in fact, the greatest Republican ever tried a version of it one time) and is not apparently illegal, at least not to the point that the senators can be legally impelled to come home.

Nor would I concede that the Republican use of the filibuster in 2009-10 was ordinary. In fact the frequency of the filibuster tactic was unprecedented to a degree that called into question – at least in the minds of supporters of Obama and the health care bill – whether the filibuster was rendering the Senate dysfunctional and perhaps the nation ungovernable.

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Amorphous concept
In the end, the concept of a “mandate” in U.S. political culture is amorphous. A candidate takes a lot of positions on a lot of issues (and sometimes a lot of positions on the same issue). Voters support him or her for a variety of reasons ranging from her biography to his record to her issue positions to the cleverness of his TV ads or the ineffable smile that a voter saw creep across her face just before she delivered a zinger during of the debates. Of course, about half of those who could vote, don’t vote, and of those that do, most vote for whomever their party nominates.

To say that a president or a governor has a mandate to implement a particular policy just because he or she advocated it occasionally during the campaign would border on the fanciful.

And how could the practical problems of “mandate politics” be better illustrated than in the 2010 Minnesota election?

The campaign was substantially about how, in addressing the unprecedentedly huge state budget deficit, to strike the balance between higher taxes and lower spending. We elected a governor who, if he ran on any one idea, ran on the idea of raising income taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans in order to spare brutal cuts to programs that benefit schools and the neediest. And we elected majorities in both houses of the Legislature of Republicans who ran on No New Taxes.

Each side can claim a mandate, but the mandates cancel each other.

(Long snotty aside coming here: Repub Chair Tony Sutton had a fairly silly moment a few weeks ago on “Almanac at the Capitol” when he claimed that Minnesotans, by electing the Repub majorities, had stated unambiguously against any tax increases. Intrepid moderator Mary Lahammer pointed out that the same electorate had chosen Mark read-my-lips-tax-the-rich Dayton. Sutton riposted that Dayton had been elected with less than a majority of the vote. Lahammer politely moved on, without noting that a landslidely majority of Minnesotans voted for guv candidates — including IPer Tom Horner – who favored raising net revenue and without asking Sutton whether he had ever expressed, during the eight years that Tim Pawlenty faced DFL legislative majorities, the notion that TPaw lacked a mandate because he had not been elected by a majority of Minnesota voters. End of long snotty aside.)

In the current looming standoff, one side – Dayton — has publicly offered to seek a difference-splitting compromise. The other side has so far hunkered down behind the view the compromise is possible only if there are no new taxes.

We’ll see how this works out. But the starting positions reflect an apparent cultural difference between the two major parties where compromise is concerned.

The other night, “PBS NewsHour” had Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch on to trash Obama’s proposal for giving states more flexibility in the implementation of the new law. Interviewer Judy Woodruff asked Hatch if he saw any potential for a middle ground between Dems and Repubs going forward on health care. Sure, said Hatch, middle ground would be to repeal Obamacare and start over (his actual phrase was “trash the bill and get rid of it.”)

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Poll on compromise
Pew Research Center recently asked a national sample whether they want politicians who “stick to their positions” or whether they prefer officials who “make compromises with people they disagree with.”

Democrats were evenly split (48 percent for position-stickers, 46 percent for compromisers). Among Republicans it was 63-32 for stickers.

Lefty columnist Paul Waldman of American Prospect found a weird, interesting detail in the breakdowns on that question:

“While conservative Republicans are much more likely than moderate and liberal Republicans to prefer those with an uncompromising stance (70 percent, as opposed to 54 percent of the moderate and liberal Republicans), liberal Democrats are actually more likely to favor those who make compromises than are moderate and conservative Democrats (57 percent of liberal Democrats prefer compromisers, compared to 41 percent of moderate and conservative Democrats).

“These findings certainly accord with our ideological stereotypes: Conservatives are often wrong but never in doubt; liberals are so open-minded they won’t take their own side in an argument.”