Parties Now See Any Electoral Victory As A Mandate

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about the schism in the Republican Party, with the “Stop the Steal” wing, steadfastly loyal to former President Trump, on one side, and what one Republican pollster referred to me last week as the “reality-based” wing on the other. The contrast between the approaches and personalities of the two top Republican leaders in Congress is about as stark as any we have seen, and underscores the oddity of this time in the history of the Grand Ole Party.

Not that long ago, the mere mention of the late Ronald Reagan’s name would bring bowed heads and misty eyes. Now it is Trump’s name that has eclipsed Reagan’s as the party’s defining figure, no matter that the policies and mindset of the Reagan and Trump administrations could hardly be more different.

But the division within the Republican Party is hardly the only seemingly contradictory dynamic in American politics today. Over the last year and a half, while candidates of the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party have come up short in hotly contested nomination fights, the party’s approach to governing this year has been closer to the progressive ideal than the more moderate side of the party.

In his “Data Download” segment on Sunday’s Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd noted, There's been talk for the past few cycles about the Left taking on more control in the Democratic Party. The Squad gets a lot of headlines. And this week, progressive congresswoman Cori Bush's protest about the eviction moratorium did force some action from the White House. But at the polls, it's a much different story. It's the moderates who keep winning.

“Look, the bottom line,” Todd continued, “at the ballot box, we have an idea of what the base of the Democratic Party looks like. It looks a lot more like the Democratic coalition that Joe Biden put together.”

Indeed, Biden is in the White House by virtue of fewer than 43,000 votes combined in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin. Chuck Schumer is the Senate majority leader because of Raphael Warnock’s Georgia victory by fewer than 56,000 votes over appointed incumbent Kelly Loeffler, giving Democrats their 50th seat. According to figures compiled by David Wasserman, the senior editor of The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter, a combined victory margin of less than 32,000 votes elected Democrats Tom Malinowski in New Jersey, Lauren Underwood in Illinois, Cindy Axne in Iowa, Vicente Gonzalez in Texas, and Abigail Spanberger in Virginia. Together, those five House races effectively made Nancy Pelosi the speaker of the House instead of Kevin McCarthy.

Considering the circumstances, the expansion of government’s cost, reach, scale, and ambition that Democrats are now backing is little short of breathtaking. From what we have seen so far, the direction of the Capital Beltway chapter of the Democratic Party looks more like what might have been expected from a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren presidency than a Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, or Amy Klobuchar administration. Imagine how different this agenda would have been if Democrats had split the two Senate elections instead of sweeping them.

This is not to say that the course that the Biden administration, Pelosi, Schumer and their leadership teams have chosen is right or wrong politically, or will turn out well or badly for them in the 2022 midterm and 2024 presidential elections.

But as we saw when Republicans won the federal trifecta in 2016, adding the White House to their House and Senate majorities, no victory margin is too small to claim a great mandate. Indeed there is now no relationship between the size of a victory margin and the mandate that flows from that win.

There are an endless number of things that may drive the 2022 elections, but chief among them will be which party’s division and direction will become the more damaging—or will strike a responsive chord with the electorate. 

This article was published for the National Journal on August 10, 2021. 

Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA