The President’s Mandate

Published November 05, 2004, issue of November 05, 2004.
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The results of this election will be analyzed, spun and dissected for years, but one cardinal message must be clear in our minds: The Republicans have become this nation’s majority party. Democrats need to look that reality in the face, absorb it and begin to plan their next moves accordingly.

Four years ago, the Republican Party emerged from a disputed election to find itself accidentally in control of all the levers of power in Washington. Democrats rightly argued that President Bush’s ambiguous mandate carried an obligation to govern from the center and to bring the nation together. Bush did the opposite, pressing through an agenda of radical and at times reckless change that made America poorer and the world more dangerous.

Regardless of that record, Bush emerged from this election with a decisive mandate. He won a clear majority of the popular vote. He increased his party’s advantage in both the Senate and the House. In an important symbolic victory, his party toppled the Democrats’ most influential national figure, Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader. There was nothing technical in this victory.

Coming into Election Day, Democrats were hoping to gain from a burst of newly registered voters — predictions ran as high as 15 million — pouring forth to vent their anger over the Bush administration’s mishandling of the Iraq war. That expectation only grew during the day, as three-hour lines snaked around the polling places, suggesting what even conservative pundits called a surge of voter anger that could only help the challenger.

As it turned out, the surge happened, but it didn’t help the challenger. The total of votes cast this year was higher than in 2000 by at least 8 million, a historic turnaround in American voter participation. But the newcomers didn’t break for the Democrats. If anything, they helped boost Bush from a half-million-vote deficit in 2000 to his 3.5 million-vote edge this year.

As for voter anger, it seems to have cut both ways. Democrats were steamed, but so were Republicans.

The president would do well to note that anger as he lays out his second-term agenda. America emerged from his first term more divided and bitter than at any time in living memory. The election results confirm something we’ve known for a decade: Americans are split roughly in half on a host of deeply emotional issues. Each new wedge campaign only increases the frustration and alienation that Americans feel toward their government and one another.

Bush could legitimately use the tools of governance in his hands to speed up his program of radical change, targeting everything from abortion to the tax system to the United Nations. That would surely please his core supporters. But it would be a disservice to America and the world. The boost he received in the popular vote, from 49% in 2000 to 51% this year, does not represent a national mandate for sweeping change. On the contrary, it confirms that we’re split down the middle. It is a mandate for conciliation.

Nothing in Bush’s record offers hope that he will heed that historic mandate. Democrats should expect the administration to push forward with renewed energy on a host of regressive measures. They must respond with dignity, resolve and passion. With a war raging, the deficit soaring and the chief justice of the Supreme Court in failing health, the stakes will be high.

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