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Bush's Mandate Misread

First off, let me say how privileged and honored I am to have been invited to guest blog here at RealClearPolitics for the final week of 2005. Few political websites rise to the level of indispensable as this site does, so for John and Tom to think of me for this is very flattering indeed.

Since it is the end of the year, it seems fitting to try to assess how various political agents fared in 2005. The most obvious place to start is George W. Bush, who - let us face it - had an awful year. It was certainly the worst of his presidency. The pressing question: why was this the case?

I think that this year was as bad as it was for Bush because he fundamentally misread his electoral mandate. The Bush Administration was convinced last January that, in the words of Washington Times columnist Helle Dale, “The American people endorsed Mr. Bush's foreign policy in the 2004 election and gave him a mandate for leadership.” The administration also claimed for itself a mandate on domestic policy. Said Bush last January (as quoted in The Washington Post at the time), "I campaigned on this issue of Social Security, and the need to strengthen it and reform it…This is part of fulfilling a campaign pledge."

The Democrats, on the other hand, had a different view of the matter. Even after the stinging defeat they suffered last year, they were emboldened to block each and every one of Bush's major initiatives. More than this, they felt they could continue to debate the major questions from the 2004 campaign, most notably the Iraq question. They bet that Bush's election did not represent a decision on the part of the public that they were willing to bite on his “ownership society”, or any other Bush proposal, foreign or domestic.

The Democrats were correct. And we all saw what happened as a consequence. What was Bush's mistake? Simply stated, he misread his mandate.

It is a common mistake that presidents make. Even the great presidents misread their mandates. FDR, for instance, incorrectly guessed that the public had demonstrated in 1936 that they were willing to support his plan to redesign our governmental institutions for the sake of his domestic programs. He, of course, was wrong. This was the first time this type of mistake has been made in the modern presidency - and it is one that has been repeated time and time again.

Presidents misread their mandates all the time. They assume that their electoral victory implies some kind of empowerment to do anything more than take the oath of office and see where things go from there. But, in reality, it implies little more than this. The reason for this is that, as political scientist E.E. Schattschneider once famously said, the American people collectively have a vocabulary of just two words: "yes" and "no." And the question that was put before that public in 2004 was “Do you want George W. Bush to continue to serve as President?” The answer was a monosyllabic response: yes. It was not, “Yes because we like his Iraq policy” or, “Yes because we want to have an ownership society.” The American public, taken as a whole, lacks the ability to make such a sophisticated statement.

In the case of Bush, his electoral constituency did not have a uniform set of reasons for voting for him. Some voted for him to support the troops, some liked his domestic agenda, some liked his personality, some loathed John Kerry, and some even pulled the wrong lever. And there was no single bloc of Bush voters that voted for him because of any given issue that was large enough to induce the Democrats to honor Bush's demands for reform on that issue. Take Social Security. How could the Democrats so boldly thwart Bush's Social Security reform agenda, despite the fact that he was elected with 51% of the vote? The reason is that only a small portion of that 51% (a) knew that Bush wanted to reform Social Security, (b) knew with any detail what Bush's idea to reform Social Security was, and (c) agreed with Bush that his idea of Social Security reform was a good one.

Simply stated, all presidents who enjoy success with Congress do not enjoy that success by virtue of their electoral mandate. They enjoy it rather because of their proper reading of Congress and its relationship with the public. They know what to ask for, when to ask for it, whom in Congress to ask, how to ask, etc. Successful presidents do not rely on any mandate to get their proposals through our legislature. For proof of this, just look at how successful Bush was in his first term - two wars fought, major domestic reforms of almost all major domestic issues, and 49% of the vote.

Most presidents enjoy no substantive policy mandate moving forward, i.e. no consensus among the public about what the president should do. This means that they have to claw and scratch for every inch they can get from Congress without recourse to reminding that body what the public “said” several months before. However, they usually enjoy the luxury of having previous issues that they have settled remaining settled. Most presidents, when they take that second oath of office, do not need to worry about the issues in between oaths being revisited. Bush was not so lucky. His electoral victory in November, 2004 did not even signal that the public was necessarily ready to accept what Bush had already done.

This was the White House's key misreading of their mandate. They came to believe that the Iraq policy was largely settled with the November election. But, again, the only thing that was settled in November was Bush over Kerry, not Bush's Iraq policy over Kerry's Iraq “policy”. Perhaps the fact that we need quotation marks to discuss Kerry's pseudo-position on Iraq is why the public never coalesced around an opinion on the matter -- there was no clearly identifiable policy choice last year. The choice was rather between Bush's status quo and Kerry's hollow rhetoric. Perhaps it is because the Bush Administration was able to characterize the foreign policy questions of last year as boiling down to capacity, i.e. Kerry's total lack thereof, that resulted in Iraq policy remaining unsettled. For whatever reason, the public had not solidified behind a pro-Bush opinion on Iraq after the November election.

If you examine the tactical maneuvers of the Bush Administration in the first few months of this year, you can see very clearly that Bush and his advisors were of the opinion that the Iraq issue was essentially settled; the public was concerned about the casualties, but, so the White House thought, largely felt that Bush was on the right track. They took Bush's reelection as proof of this. And thus, the Administration decided to move forward with Bush's slate of domestic reforms.

Democrats, however, correctly saw that Bush did not have a solid majority of the public on his side either on Iraq or on his domestic reform agenda - and therefore they could thwart his domestic reform proposals while continuing to question the wisdom of the Iraq policy. As the White House did not respond to these criticisms for months, they began to take hold within the mind of the public. Thanks to the fact that for months Bush was talking about Social Security and the Democrats were talking about Iraq, public opinion slowly began to move from Bush: the lack of a mandate for Bush's Iraq policy, indeed the lack of any majority opinion in the public on the Iraq question, transformed into a majority opposing Bush.

This was Bush's major tactical error in 2005. Unfortunately for Bush, this error was compounded by events that negatively affected public perception of the Administration - Katrina, Libby-Rove, Miers. Some of these were within his control. Some of these were not. But they added up to Bush being seriously off his game by October.

As it stands, and to the White House's credit, the Administration seems to have bounced back. They seem to have recognized that Iraq is not a closed issue, that they must continue to address it if they wish to have the kind of public support they need to force Congress to act. Unfortunately for Bush, he only began to return to form at the end of the legislative session, thus ensuring that his influence over legislative output this year was minimal. Perhaps we can see this most clearly in the problems that the Administration has faced in getting the Patriot Act renewed.

This year was most definitely a wasted year for the Bush Administration. They made a major tactical error early in the year, and did not realize their mistake until the summer had come and gone.

This just goes to show that presidents should not be too hasty in reading a mandate into electoral returns. The American public is a hodgepodge of interests, values and preferences - and it is only rarely that this hodgepodge manages to coalesce behind an issue and a president at the same time. Smart presidents recognize that the mandate a president enjoys is the mandate to assume all of the formal and informal powers that a president enjoys - so that he can finagle what he can from Washington. That is the mandate of an incumbent president - a mandate to continue to be president. It is rarely, if ever, a mandate to do a certain thing. This is why, in the age of the modern presidency, the campaign never actually ends - the president must continuously coax, coerce and convince both Congress and the public to see things his way. He can never assume that any issue, large or small, is settled. The Administration forgot that in 2005. This is why it was such a rough year for the 43rd President.