Gene Gerard: A Mandate? What Mandate?

Gene Gerard, HNN book editor (Nov. 5, 2004):

Over the course of the last two days, since the election, various members of the media have said that President Bush now has a mandate. Presumably, this is attributable to the fact that Bush received precisely one percentage point about 50 in the popular vote. And to be fair, he is the first president to achieve a popular vote exceeding 50% since his father’s election in 1988. But there is evidence suggesting that the mandate Bush received is not what he expected or believes it to be.

An analysis of the exit-polling data from the election indicates that while the electorate preferred President Bush to Senator Kerry, a majority did not view his presidency favorably. 52% felt that things are going badly for the U.S. in Iraq. More voters were “angry” or “dissatisfied” (49% to 48%) with his administration than were “enthusiastic” or “satisfied.” Asked whether Bush is concerned more about average Americans or large corporations, 54% said it was big business. In rating the economy, 52% regarded it as “not good” or “poor.” Similarly, 52% felt that the war in Iraq has made America less secure.

Perhaps the press is merely reciting what they’ve heard the administration saying in recent days. The day after the election, Vice-President Cheney stated that “the nation responded by giving him [President Bush] a mandate.” The following day, Bush said in his first post-election press conference, “I earned political capital in the campaign.” During the last four years, the media has been guilty of simply repeating the administration’s standard lines, often regarding key issues. They recited the story that there were weapons of mass destruction, only to admit a year later, as was the case with The Washington Post, that they accepted the Bush administration’s assertions and didn’t bother to actually investigate.

Historically, a mandate has been given by a demonstrable majority, and in support of clear policies and objectives. When President Roosevelt won re-election in 1936 by garnering 60% of the popular vote, it was accurately viewed as support for the various governmental programs initiated by the New Deal. Likewise, when President Reagan won 59% of the vote in 1984, it was seen as public confirmation that his “supply-side economic” policies had succeeded in reinvigorating the economy.

If there was a mandate from the voting public Tuesday, it is confused and ambiguous at best, and at most can be viewed as support for George W. Bush rather than his presidency. Yet, to my knowledge, not a single journalist has attempted to refute or even temper the administration’s assertion that Bush has a mandate. Oddly enough, the only prominent person who has done so is Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania, who is expected to serve as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee next year. The day after the election, Senator Specter wisely noted in an interview that “If you have a race which is decided by a percentage point or two…that does not qualify for the traditional mandate.” Perhaps Senator Specter should consider working as a journalist after he retires. Or a historian.

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