Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mandates? What Mandates?

Two years ago, John Kasich promised to “break the back of organized labor” in the Ohio school system. A year ago, he was elected governor, and pushed through legislation to end collective bargaining for public employees. Just a couple of weeks ago, Ohio voters overturned the law in a referendum.

Has Ohio suddenly gone liberal? Not exactly. At the same election in which they vetoed the anti-union legislation by a 61-39% margin, they also supported a proposition to block Obamacare, with its requirement for people to buy health insurance, by a 65-35% margin. Meanwhile, voters in Mississippi, the most conservative state in the nation, rejected by a 58-42% margin a constitutional amendment to define life as beginning at fertilization – but you’ll never see Mississippi support Obama in the next election.

You can’t have helped noticing that American politics are more combative than ever, with the Tea Party at one end at Occupy Wall Street at the other. Right now, a special committee created by Congress to resolve the debt crisis is deadlocked, with neither the Republicans nor the Democrats willing to give an inch on either new taxes or entitlement reform. But what you may not have noticed is that the left and the right suffer a common delusion: that the people are behind them 100%, and that if they win an election, voters are giving them a mandate to turn their agendas into law.

As it happens, Kasich was elected governor of Ohio by only a plurality, 49%. Not much of a “mandate.” And yet he was convinced he had one – “Le people, c’est moi.” But few if any elections are actually unconditional mandates. Presidential landslides, like those of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1972, are rare indeed. Johnson parlayed his mandate into pushing through Civil Rights legislation, but his popular support sank into the Vietnam quagmire. Nixon… well, you know what happened to him.

The Republicans are convinced they have a mandate now, because they won the mid-term elections. But Ohio shows how ephemeral a seeming a mandate can be. The fact of the matter is that most voters were simply expressing their disappointment with Barack Obama – as Bill Clinton once said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Obama himself thought he had a mandate for what became Obamacare, but the fact of the matter is that people in 2008 were voting against the Republicans in the wake of the economic meltdown as much as they were voting for him. Ohio’s vote on Obamacare was all the more stunning rebuke for him, paired as it was with the rejection of the GOP anti-union agenda.

Some elections are decided on single issues, but not necessarily those in party platforms. In both 2008 and 2010, the big issue was still the economy. But even if voters studied the party platforms in detail, it is virtually impossible that they would embrace or reject them on an all-or-nothing basis. Maybe they’d agree with six out of ten positions of one party, and only four out of ten of the other’s – and vote accordingly. But the winners would take this as a “mandate” for all ten of their positions, even if the election margin was close – which it usually is.

No time or space right now to get into the specifics of political issues, or the greater issue of political corruption. But even if all our leaders were as honest as the day is long in the usual sense, and absolutely sincere in their positions on the issues, they would still suffer the hubris of imaginary mandates.

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