When Paul Ryan and top congressional Republicans gathered on the evening of January 20, 2009, to plot a strategy of absolute and unrelenting opposition to Barack Obama’s presidency, and to the House and Senate Democrats who had received a mandate from the American people to work with the enormously popular president-elect, California Congressman Kevin McCarthy told the group: “If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority. We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”
That determination to resist the Obama agenda offended Democrats and thrilled Republicans. But, at the most fundamental level, it was nothing more than Politics 101. An opposition party exists to oppose the party in power. Ryan and his fellow partisans understood this in 2009.
Yet now Ryan and the Republicans are whining about the failure of Democrats to play the role of a “loyal opposition” that willingly compromises and cooperates with President-elect Donald Trump and the wrecking crew the incoming administration has assembled to destroy essential programs—beginning with Medicaid—while redistributing wealth to the billionaire class that is its core constituency.
The Speaker of the House claims Trump “earned a mandate” for a “go big, go bold” agenda, while Trump “counselor” Kellyanne Conway is not just claiming a mandate but griping that critics of the billionaire are “attempting to foment a permanent opposition that is corrosive to our constitutional democracy.”
“The left is trying to delegitimize his election,” grumbles Conway. “They’re trying to deny him what he just earned.”
Ryan and Conway should brush up on their math. Trump earned 2.9 million fewer votes than his Democratic rival. The Republican earned just 46.1 percent of the popular vote. Only a narrow Electoral College advantage made him president-elect.
Republican Senate candidates earned a little over 42 percent of the vote in contests across the country. Far from receiving the a full-throttle endorsement from an electorate that is enthusiastic about approving Trump’s extreme Cabinet picks and potentially even more extreme judicial nominees, the Senate Republican Caucus lost two seats.
Republican House candidates earned roughly 49 percent of the vote in contests across the country. Far from receiving a full-throttle endorsement of an electorate that is enthusiastic about dismembering Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security and of redistributing wealth upward to the billionaire class, Ryan’s House caucus lost six seats.
By any reasonable measure, Trump, Ryan, and their allies lack the broad popular approval that Obama and congressional Democrats had on January 20, 2009. Yet, while Ryan and his compatriots resolved in 2009 to oppose a president and a Congress that enjoyed a mandate, they now demand acquiescence to a president and a Congress that lack a mandate.
It is absurd to claim that this administration and this Congress enjoy enthusiastic popular support. They don’t.
It is equally absurd to claim that the simple notation of the fact that this president and his allies will come to power with minority rather than majority support is an attempt to “delegitimize the election.” Conway has the calculus precisely wrong, Claiming a mandate when no mandate exists is the real attempt to delegitimize the election—by denying the reality that most Americans did not vote for Trump or for the Republican Senate that will soon attempt to rubber-stamp his nominees for cabinet posts and the extreme agenda advanced by Ryan in the House.
The irrefutable fact on which to base the consideration of politics in the New Year extends from the election results of old year: Democrats have dramatically greater justification for opposing the Trump-Ryan agenda in 2017 than Ryan and his fellow Republicans had for opposing the Obama agenda in 2009. Instead of being the “loyal opposition,” Democrats should position themselves as the legitimate (and necessary) opposition to an administration and an agenda that has no mandate.