Mandates, then and now

Liberals are claiming that President Obama’s victory (by about 3 percentage points nationally) provides him with a mandate to continue the course he charted during his first term and to pursue the ideas he espoused during the campaign, most notably a “balanced” approach to reducing the budget deficit. In asserting such a mandate, liberals also point to the fact that the Democrats increased their majority in the Senate.

Conservatives, who would be making the same sort of claim if Romney had won and Republicans had made gains in the Senate, point to the fact that the electorate voted in another majority-Republican House. Liberals counter that this was the product of redistricting, and that, when all the votes are counted, Democrats will likely have received fractionally more votes nationally than Republicans in House races.

However, it can’t be denied that, to the extent the concept of a mandate has meaning in this context, every Republican House member has a mandate to vote the line he or she espoused during his or her campaign. And that line will almost always put the Republican member in opposition to liberalism in general and to President Obama in particular.

The real question is the extent to which, given the nature of the overall vote nationally, Republicans in Congress should adopt a new, more deferential tone in dealing with President Obama. Fortunately, there is recent precedent on this question.

In 2004, President Bush won a second term with a margin of about 2.5 percentage points. Republicans also gained four Senate seats, taking their total to 55. That’s the same number the Democrats now hold after gaining two seats this year.

But unlike this year, the president’s party won a majority of House seats in the 2004 election. Also unlike this year, the incumbent president improved on his performance in the previous election, thereby giving rise to an argument that he should be treated more deferentially by the opposition than he was during his first term.

The 2012 results thus imply that the Republican tone towards President Obama should mirror the tone of congressional Democrats, including then-Senator Obama, towards President Bush after the 2004 election. They also imply that the deference of the opposition party to the president should be same. In other words, the default level of deference should be zero (which is not, of course, the same thing as always opposing the president and his positions).

But no president should be treated as nastily as congressional Democrats treated George W. Bush. Instead, Republicans should grant Obama zero deference but do so with a nicer tone.

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