American Close-Up: the 2000 and 2008 Elections

December 13, 2010

Presidential political mandates are earned on the job, not won in the ballot box, and it takes more than the executive branch of government to seal the deal.

The presidential election of 2000 was decided by a Supreme Court decision in December that decided Florida and gave George W. Bush five more electoral votes, 266, than taken by his Democratic Party opponent, Al Gore.  Gore actually captured 540K more popular votes than Bush, 48.4% of the popular vote count to Bush’s 47.9%.  In that year’s congressional elections, the senate split 50:50 between the major parties, while the Republicans took ten more seats in the House of Representatives than did the Democrats.  On paper, it was the thinnest of victory margins, and Bush did not get a big advantage in the Congress to strengthen his mandate, but he made the most of what he had.

Bush was able to carry out his agenda, and key legislation was approved expeditiously.  A huge reduction in taxes was passed and signed within four and a half months.  The Patriot Act was approved before the end of October 2001, and No Child Left Behind became law before the first anniversary of Bush’s inaugural.  2002 saw the Congress pass the Homeland Security Act and authorize military force in Iraq.  The agenda was drawn up by the White House, not so much congressional Republicans.  Bush left little doubt where he stood on issues and when he shifted arguments, he managed to do it without losing a sense of consistency in his views.  The President decided.  Hardly modified by congressional republicans, the legislature delivered what the White House requested. 

Barack Obama won the 2008 election with a comfortable victory, capturing 192 more electoral votes than John McCain (365 to 173) and 8.5 million more votes or 53.4% of the total.  That win was complemented by senate and house majorities of 55-41 and 256-178.  Obama’s road to some impressive legislative successes — such as a fiscal stimulus, healthcare reform, and Wall Street reform — was messy, however.  The votes were extremely bipartisan and much less acceptable to voters than Bush’s.  Obama deferred to congressional Democrats on many details, and it was often unclear exactly what Obama wanted. 

This tale of two elections and the ensuing presidencies says a great deal about the nature of political mandates in America’s shared system of government.  In a parliamentary system, the executive and legislative branches are decided together and indistinguishable.  Win by a landslide, and the victor can ride herd on what follows.  It’s different in America.  With war-like precision, Bush seized victory from ambiguous election results, and he kept marching his short but premeditated agenda to the finish line.  He proved the effectiveness of bluster and simplicity in message, taking no prisoners unlike Obama.  It helped even more to have a congressional delegation that was disciplined and determined to tow the line.  Unlike the Democrats of this era, the Republicans in 2001-2 understood the importance of hanging together lest they hang separately.

Another difference in the outcomes of the 2000 and 2008 elections stems from the experience of the chosen nominees.  George Bush was not new to the national political scene.  He grew up in a family that breathed politics.  His father and namesake had been VP and then president from January 1981 to January 1993.  George had six years as governor of Texas, now the country’s second most populated state.  Obama’s career in national politics began with his election to the senate in 2004, a mere four years before winning the presidency.  Obama was elected without an established track record of his executive style of management.  Few Americans had heard of him before the 2004 Democratic National Convention.  He was carried to victory in 2008 largely on the back of a two-out-of-three majority of votes among those aged 18-29, an impressionable age in the face of skilled orators but not a group that tends to follow politics closely. 

Presidential political mandates are shaped by a lot of intangibles. 

  • Connecting with the electorate is critical.  It was easy for voters to understand the meaning of a tax cut and difficult to dislike the idea.  Obama chose complicated legislative goals like health care and financial market reform, and the changes he was recommending were never clearly understood by many Americans. 
  • Party desire, discipline, and determination to do whatever it takes cannot be underrated.  In competitive sports, victory is often said to be a function of desire.  The winner, it is said the morning after, wanted to taste victory more than the loser.  The same senate rules that Republicans used so effectively to obstruct Obama were available to the Democrats when Bush was first elected, but the Democrats of 2001 proved to be not as street smart as the Republicans of 2009.
  • A president doesn’t have to beat his opponent soundly to claim a huge mandate.  The former president most admired by Obama is Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln received only 39.8% of the popular vote in a four-way race in 1860 and proceeded to wage a difficult and unpopular war, free the slaves, and decree all sorts of controversial orders like the suspension of Habeas Corpus. 

It’s always been true that political mandates are earned, not won.  Why should that be different in the 21st century.

Copyright 2010 Larry Greenberg.  All rights reserved.  No secondary distribution without express permission.

Tags: ,


Comments are closed.