A day after the 2004 presidential voting was done, when it was finally possible to declare victory, Vice President Dick Cheney introduced a reelected President George W. Bush to the United States. But Cheney did not merely claim the win. He announced that, "President Bush ran forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation's future, and the nation responded by giving him a mandate."
Even by the accepted standards of vice presidential hyperbole – which have been dramatically expanded during the Cheney interregnum – that's a stretch. But it is a stretch that right-wing talk radio and cable television have been quick to make, with The Weekly Standard's invariably over-the-top Bill Kristol declaring Bush's win to be "an even larger and clearer mandate than those won in the landslide reelection campaigns of Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984, and Clinton in 1996."
Kristol was, of course, wrong. There was no sense in which Bush's mandate was even comparable with those of Nixon, Reagan or Clinton. But if Kristol's assessement was ridiculously wrong, so too were the reviews of the result presented by much of the so-called "mainstream" media. Doyle McManus and Janet Hook of The Los Angeles Times have declared that "Bush can claim a solid mandate." In The New York Times, David Sanger went event further, claiming that, "Mr. Bush no longer has to pretend that he possesses a clear electoral mandate. Because for the first time in his presidency, he can argue that he has the real thing."
Truth-challenged statements are to be expected from Cheney, who continues to peddle the now entirely-discredited theory that Iraq posed a threat that necessitated the invasion and occupation of that country, and who still stands by the fiddled figures that were used to justify the administration's fiscally fraudulent overhaul of Medicare. But no one else, not even a Bill Kristol or a David Sanger, has any excuse for calling what Bush won on Tuesday a mandate.
In the language of American politics, the term "mandate" refers to a sweeping electoral win that confers upon the victor the authority not merely to govern but to radically alter the course of the country. Few presidents get them. And George W. Bush is not one of those presidents.
Let's get clear regarding what Bush got out of Tuesday's election:
* He won a popular vote majority that currently stands at about 3.5 million. If that number holds, he'll end up with a roughly 51-48 margin over Democrat John Kerry.
* He won an electoral vote majority of 286-252 (assuming that reviews of ballots in Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico leave those states in his column).
* He will govern with both a House and Senate controlled by his party. But in both chambers moderate elements of the Republican party could combine with Democrats to slow his agenda.
By comparison with most presidents elected in the past century, that is anything but a mandate.
Consider this: In the presidential elections from 1904 up until this year, the victors in 21 of 25 contests won by wider percentage of the popular vote than that achieved by Bush on Tuesday. During that same 100 year period, the victors in 23 of 25 presidential elections won by wider margins in the Electoral College than did Bush – the only narrower wins were those of Bush in the disputed election of 2000 and Woodrow Wilson in 1916.
Bill Clinton, George Herbert Walker Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt (in all four of his campaigns), Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Warren Harding, Woodrow Wilson (in 1912), William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt all won elections by significantly wider popular vote AND electoral vote margins than did Bush in 2004.
So which president's "mandate" is most comparable to that earned this year by Bush? Jimmy Carter's in 1976. Carter won the Electoral College by a slightly larger margin than Bush will this year, 297-240, while his popular vote margin was an almost identical 51-48. Carter had far more friendly majorities in the House and Senate. But, far from accepting that he had any kind of mandate, Republicans moved immediately – and with notable success – to build bipartisan coalitions in opposition to Carter initiatives such as the Panama Canal Treaty. Outside of Congress, Ronald Reagan dismissed the notion that Carter had any kind of mandate, and traveled the country organizing opposition to the new president's policies.
History came to see Carter as an embattled president, rather than a man with a mandate. Today, the University of Virginia's Miller Center on Public Affairs, one of the most respected centers of scholarship on the American presidency, says this in its review of the 1976 results: "Carter squeaked out a narrow victory."
That, rather than the inflated claims of Dick Cheney and William Kristol, is an accurate description of George W. Bush's victory this year. There is no mandate to be found. The president squeaked out a narrow victory – nothing more. And his critics would be wise to grant him precisely the same amount of slack that Ronald Reagan and the Republicans granted Jimmy Carter.
John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."
Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and by clicking here.