The 2012 election, we were told, would provide clarity. One side or the other would emerge with a mandate. The losers would have to accept the voters’ judgment and back down. Soon, legislative gridlock would give way to constructive deal-making, and progress would be made on the great issues of the day.
Well, the results are (largely) in, and Washington finds itself delivered of not one mandate, but several. Consider:
The Progressive Mandate
President Obama defied history. He overcame a stalled economy and the voters’ starkly negative assessment of its future direction (not to mention their pessimism as to their own future prospects) to win a significant reelection victory. To no one’s surprise, he claimed a mandate to “build on the progress we’ve made” during his first term, with the emphasis on the verb “build.” The American people, he believes, have embraced his progressive agenda of higher taxes on the “rich,” a sweeping regulatory agenda directed at businesses large and small, an expensive expansion of the welfare state, a “leading from behind” foreign policy and a “see no evil, speak no evil” approach to our fiscally unsustainable entitlement programs.
The House Tea Party Mandate
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) reveled in the mandate he and his Republican majority in the House — at least 234 — received from the same American people. Defying the odds, the House Republican majority’s historic class of 2010 survived largely intact, though depleted in a few marquee races where the political left “invested” millions to defeat the most threatening new Republican faces. House Republicans, he said, were “the primary line of defense for the American people against a government that spends too much, taxes too much, and borrows too much when left unchecked.” Specifically, he emphasized “the American people have also made clear that there is NO mandate for raising tax rates.”
The incoming House is, if anything, even more ideologically balkanized than it was previously. Several of the dwindling number of centrist Republicans lost, including Reps. Robert Dold and Judy Biggert of Illinois and Charlie Bass of New Hampshire. Similarly, no fewer than eight strongly conservative Republicans will now occupy seats previously held by Blue Dog Democrats.
Senate’s “Get Over It” Mandate
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) enhanced majority, he no doubt believes, vindicates his scorched-earth procedural strategy to stifle the Republican minority. We now know that shutting down legislative debates through the adroit use of procedural tactics such as filling the amendment tree (thereby forcing Republicans who want to actually debate the issues to resort to filibusters) and jettisoning the budget process (rather than subjecting his caucus to uncomfortable floor votes) is a freebie — i.e., with no political consequences. Little wonder, then, that Reid sees a mandate to require his nettlesome Republican minority to get over it and play ball with the big boys. “The strategy of obstruction, gridlock and delay,” he said, “was soundly rejected by the American people.”
In contrast to the House, centrist Senate Democrats fared quite well last Tuesday. Relatively moderate incumbents survived, in Montana and Missouri, even as a Blue Dog won in Indiana and a pro-fossil fuel Democrat prevailed in North Dakota. Will they reflect the Red State tendencies of their constituents and force Reid and Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.) to chart a more centrist course?
The Red America Mandate
Lost amid all the Washington posturing is the continuing Republican dominance at the state level. Republicans solidified their hold on the governors’ mansions, picking up North Carolina. If you are counting, Republicans now control 30 state houses. The GOP also netted two additional state attorneys generals, in West Virginia and Montana, giving them a majority of those crucial positions as well. The story is much the same with respect to state legislative chambers. Republicans now control 57 of the 99 chambers — that includes Nebraska’s unicameral and nonpartisan legislature as de facto Republican, given its strong conservative leanings.
That’s a lot of Red State conservatism outside the Beltway. To Republicans, the voters’ mandate at the state level is clear — the states must be the firewall that contains the damage wrought by the excessive ambitions of our reelected president and his allies in Washington.
The net result of all this? Republicans in the House, Democrats in the Senate and Obama himself will interpret the election results as a license to continue the status quo. The pressing need to overhaul entitlement programs, reform the tax code and lighten the regulatory load on businesses will once again be challenged by these multiple mandates. This is clarity?
Franc is vice president of government studies at The Heritage Foundation.