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McConnell picks the wrong fight, questions Biden's 'mandate'

As Mitch McConnell insists Joe Biden lacks a "mandate" to pursue an agenda, one question lingers: Since when does Mitch McConnell care about mandates?
Image: Mitch McConnell, Joe Biden
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shakes hands with Vice President Joe Biden after being sworn into the 114th Congress in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2015.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

President Joe Biden ran on a rather ambitious and progressive policy platform, which he began pursuing upon entering the White House nearly 11 weeks ago. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, believes the president isn't just wrong to pursue ideas the Republican disagrees with, McConnell also believes Biden lacks a popular "mandate."

"I like him personally. I mean, we've been friends for a long time. He's a first-rate person," McConnell told reporters in Kentucky, "Nevertheless, this is a bold, left-wing administration. I don't think they have a mandate to do what they're doing."

On a conceptual level, the whole idea of a "mandate" is a fun thing to kick around from a political science perspective. For those unfamiliar with the word in this context, its meaning is pretty straightforward: candidates seek elected office while presenting voters with their visions of what they'd do once in office. The greater their margin of victory, the easier it is for those candidates to claim a popular mandate -- in effect, they can declare, "My agenda has been endorsed by the electorate, so it deserves broad support."

McConnell would have people believe that Biden is misreading the results of the 2020 election. Sure, the Democratic ticket won, the Republicans' Senate leader concedes, but that doesn't mean the American people actually endorsed the president's governing blueprint.

As a practical matter, the debate raises questions that are difficult, if not impossible, to answer. How many Americans voted for Biden because they approved of his platform, as opposed to voting against his predecessor? There's some polling on the matter, but in general, it's tough to say with confidence.

But at a foundational level, the entire line of inquiry misses the more important point. The better question is, since when does Mitch McConnell care about mandates?

In 2008, Barack Obama won 53% of the popular vote -- a 20-year high for presidential candidates from either party -- and two-thirds of the nation's electoral votes. In his first year in the White House, the then-president saw his party reach a 60-vote majority in the U.S. Senate, and a majority in the U.S. House that was nearly as large.

At the time, McConnell couldn't have cared less about whether Obama and Democrats had earned a mandate or not.

In 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots. Again, McConnell was wholly unconcerned with mandates as the Kentuckian helped pass Trump's regressive tax cuts and stacked the federal judiciary with Trump's far-right nominees.

This need not be complicated: Biden ran on an ambitious platform; he won with the strongest support of any presidential challenger since FDR; and polls show broad public backing for much of the president's policy agenda.

If McConnell wants to make the case against Biden's plans, fine. If the minority leader has a rival policy agenda he's eager to present to the public, I'm eager to see it.

But to argue that the president lacks a mandate after winning by 7 million votes is pointless.