The quadrennial question of presidential mandates has always been an academic exercise, but in 2016 it might be more academic than usual. That didn’t stop the Washington Post from polling on the question, teaming up with the Schar School at George Mason University. Only 29% of respondents think Trump has a mandate for his agenda, while 59% believe he will have to compromise with Democrats more as President.
They shouldn’t hold their breath:
Americans emerged from President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise victory in last week’s election with passionate and polarized reactions, overall expressing tempered optimism about his presidency but unconvinced that he has a mandate to enact a sweeping new policy agenda, according to a Washington Post-Schar School national poll.
The poll finds Americans still reeling from Trump’s long battle against Hillary Clinton, with more than 7 in 10 saying the campaign made them angry and more than half feeling stressed out by campaign news. Trump’s supporters are largely ebullient when asked how they feel about the result, while Clinton backers range from disappointed to fearful to apoplectic.
Nationally, just 3 in 10 Americans — 29 percent — say he has a mandate to carry out the agenda he presented during the campaign, while 59 percent say he should compromise with Democrats when they strongly disagree with the specifics of his policy proposals.
That 29 percent figure is sharply lower than the 50 percent who said the same for President Obama after his first election in 2008 and the 41 percent for former president George W. Bush after the 2000 election and the contentious recount that followed.
First, a mandate is always an academic proposition. There is no constitutional definition of “mandate” as opposed to actual election, and no limitations for presidents who supposedly lack one or superpowers for finding a mandate. The only power in mandates are those of perception, and those can be deceptive. Remember when Bush thought his second election victory gave him a mandate to retool Social Security? Good times, good times.
In part, though, Bush failed on Social Security reform because he couldn’t convince his own party to come along with him on it. Republicans controlled the House and Senate in 2005, but Harry Reid organized Democrats to prevent any bipartisan work on the reform package, which cost Bush support in his own ranks. (Barack Obama and Democrats didn’t learn that lesson with ObamaCare and have been paying the price ever since.) That’s usually the reality of mandates; the last president that actually made use of a mandate to overcome opposition control of Congress was Ronald Reagan, who came to office in a presidential landslide that had only dented Democratic control of the House (while producing a 12-seat Senate pickup and majority for the GOP, however).
That leads us to the question prompted by the poll: Where are the Democrats with whom Trump must compromise? Republicans control both the Senate and the House, and Democrats face a severe leverage problem in the former. Roll Call’s Alex Roarty points out that Democrats have to defend ten Senate seats in 2018 where Trump won last week — and five of them by wide margins:
A party that’s only three seats short of a Senate majority is nonetheless bracing to play defense for the next two years, hoping to hold a daunting 10 seats in states that went red in last week’s presidential race.
In some of the states — Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia — Trump’s margin of victory reached nearly 20 points or more. Another five — Michigan*, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida — unexpectedly swung in the GOP nominee’s favor, instilling fresh fear in Democrats that seats once presumed safe are anything but.
Democrats are nervous not just about the fact that Trump won, but how he did so. The New York real estate mogul won because of his popularity with white working-class voters, whose slow drift from the Democratic Party he accelerated to devastating effect. They abandoned Democrats as few, even seasoned, party operatives suspected they could, leading to victories in places like Michigan and Wisconsin that President Barack Obama won easily just four years ago.
With that in mind, just how much trouble will Democrats cause over the next two years? Chuck Schumer might want to act obstructionist, but will Jon Tester, Joe Manchin, or even Tammy Baldwin want to play along after watching the way their states just dumped Hillary Clinton?
In truth, Trump will probably get some to play along just on policy. They’ll be on board for another round of federal stimulus spending, for instance, especially given the potential for seat-preserving pork in their home districts. But when it comes to most other Republican policy priorities and appointments, don’t expect Trump to need much “compromise” to get his agenda through Congress. Republicans painted the map red at all levels on November 8th, as big a repudiation of a party in the White House as we are ever likely to see. Even if voters might still feel some trepidation about Trump, there is absolutely no doubt that the GOP got a governing mandate in any sense of the word.