There is an idea that is dear to the hearts of every candidate that ought to be discarded, at least until the U.S. electoral map shifts dramatically from what it has been in recent years: that the victor walks away with a “mandate” for action. The reality is that presidential and congressional elections no longer produce a mandate for much of anything. The sooner we drop that notion, the sooner our elected officials can get on with the messy business of actually governing a divided country.
Webster’s defines mandate as “an authorization to act.” Whichever presidential candidate wins this election, he will not have a clear authorization to act, because a nearly equal number of voters will have cast their ballots for the other guy. The outcome in Congress is unlikely to be any more decisive. To claim a mandate from such a narrow victory is to torture the word.
The temptation for political leaders is obviously great. U.S. campaigns have become such grueling and expensive endurance contests that politicians can be forgiven for thinking that victory must be the final word. But after once again sifting through a record barrage of advertisements, speeches, and debates, the voters keep delivering the same message – that they don’t believe either political party has all the right answers. They keep sending Republicans and Democrats to Washington in almost equal numbers in the so-far futile hope that their representatives will get the hint and figure out how to start working together.
The right response to a narrow victory is for both sides – winners and losers -- to acknowledge that voters are asking for a bit of both, for the best ideas from each party to address the serious challenges facing the United States. The wrong response – though sadly the more likely one based on recent evidence – is that the losers double down to overturn the result the next time around, and the winners try to use their narrow majority to squeeze through divisive measures while they still cling to power.
This election will not produce any mandate, but with a touch of humility on each side it could produce a chance for more sensible and effective government, something this country badly needs.