Election Day is still a week away. But already Republicans are moving to thwart a second Obama term.
If President Obama wins re-election, it’s very likely that it’ll be with a smaller margin in the popular vote than his convincing 2008 victory over John McCain. There’s even a real possibility that he could lose the popular vote while winning the electoral college.
And so, Republicans and their supporters—with an assist from the credulous Beltway press--have begun their campaign to pre-emptively de-legitimize an Obama victory by arguing that he’ll lack a “mandate” to govern. Though the argument is often strained to the point of hilarity, the goal of the effort is deadly seriously: to begin making it harder for President Obama to govern.
Of course, to many on the right, Obama has always lacked legitimacy: That’s part of the point of stoking the voter fraud myth. A 2009 poll found that a *majority* of Republicans believe ACORN stole the 2008 election.
But lately, respectable Beltway types are jumping on the prospect of a narrow Obama win as a subtler way to achieve a similar goal. On the one hand, they’re wringing their hands over the polarization such a scenario would create, while on the other, stoking that polarization themselves.
“A close election is a polarizing event, and a discrepancy between the popular outcome and the electoral vote only adds to the polarization,” Karen Hughes, a top adviser to President Bush—who was elected president in 2000 despite losing the popular vote by half a million votes—told The Washington Post Saturday.
“It rubs a raw nerve even rawer,” Hughes added, doing some of that rubbing herself.
The paper itself went further. “A win in the electoral college that is not accompanied by one in the popular vote casts a shadow over the president and his ability to govern,” reporter Karen Tumulty wrote.
James Ceaser, a politics professor at the University of Virginia writing in the conservative Weekly Standard, argues that an Obama victory by less than 1 percentage point—let alone a popular vote loss—would represent a “stunning rebuke,” adding that in that case, ”[w]ho owns the majority will remain contested.”
Michael Barone, perhaps the dean of conservative political historians, wrote this week (sub. req.) in The Financial Times that even a narrow Obama win would “refute the lesson taught by the New Deal historians”—that is, that support for a social safety net can be a winning political strategy—“since he has based his campaign largely on his opponent’s deficiencies.” In other words, Obama’s agenda lost either way.
And Dan McLaughlin of the conservative RedState.org, writes in a post titled "The Man Withoutt a Mandate," that if Obama is re-elected while losing the popular vote, he’ll be both “a crippled lame duck,” and also, in case anyone misunderstood, “the lamest lame duck in American history.”
The first problem here is that it’s never clear why President Obama would be lamer than the four previous presidents, including President Bush, who also lost the popular vote. McLaughlin says it’s because Bush wasn’t re-elected that way, so he’s not being rejected by voters in the same way. Perhaps sensing that won’t do the trick, McLaughlin adds that at least President Bush’s party retained the House in 2000, which would be different and better than Democrats retaining the Senate this year, because it’s more representative. To call this strained would be an understatement.
But there’s a bigger problem with the whole mandate argument. In the days after Obama was elected the first time, by an almost 8-point margin, Congressional Republicans agreed at a private meeting on a strategy of all-out resistance. As one senator described it: "If he was for it, we had to be against it." In other words, Republicans have never acted as if Obama had a “mandate,” regardless of his margin of victory. How would the next four years be different?
Nor did they govern as if President Bush lacked a mandate after 2000. The GOP went full-speed ahead with its agenda—tax cuts for the rich, oil companies setting energy policy--and was able to implement much of it.
So the notion that Obama would lack a “mandate” is largely beside the point. But by trying to get the mainstream press to buy into the idea, conservatives are up to something important: tying the hands of a re-elected President Obama by stoking the notion that he’s illegitimate. If the press and moderate voters begin to accept that notion, he'll have far less room to maneuver in implementing a second term.
Of course, if Obama is re-elected while losing the popular vote, there’s a positive direction in which conservatives could channel their outrage: getting behind a movement to finally scrap the electoral college and switch to a fairer system in which the candidate who gets the most votes is elected. Right now though, they appear to have a different agenda.