A mandate is like pornography. People think they know it when they see it. Problem is, once again, Republicans and Democrats tend to see things differently.
Since Election Day, politicians haven’t been shy about claiming that the public has validated their agendas. Democrats say that voters, by adding to their party’s seats in the Senate and returning President Obama to the White House, have endorsed the notion of raising taxes on the rich. House Republicans, citing their strong majority in the chamber, say that voters reelected them to pursue their goals of reducing the size and scope of government.
“Pretty much everyone in our conference is returning with a bigger margin of victory than the president of the United States,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who won reelection unopposed. “He certainly doesn’t have a mandate.” Huelskamp said that if the election proves anything, it’s that he has to fight even harder for his conservative principles to differentiate himself from Democrats.
In the “people’s chamber,” there are essentially 435 different mandates. For Huelskamp and other House Republicans, it doesn’t matter much that Obama won reelection. What do they care if Democrats ran up their numbers in states such as California and New York? The only way Huelskamp could lose his job in his rural Kansas district is if someone claiming to be more conservative beat him in a GOP primary. As long as he keeps occupying the most conservative end of the spectrum, he has little to worry about. But should he start to vote more moderately, the lawmaker could have a lot to worry about.
“We campaigned on real solutions, which gives us a mandate to pursue them,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who served as the vice president for recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “And, for whatever reason, the country chose divided government.”
Whether voters actually made a concerted effort to elect a Democratic president and a GOP House is debatable. Democrats gained about seven seats in the House, depending on the outcomes of several races that haven’t been called, and it appears that they also won the overall popular vote for the House.
A partisan redistricting process that drew up more-homogenized constituent bases than ever determined the outcomes of many races well before Election Day. According to David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report, as few as 10 districts voted for the president and also for a GOP House candidate. These split-ticket parts of the country are usually incubators for potential compromise, and now there are fewer of them than ever.
So, when Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, says, “I intend to represent the people that elected me,” he’s talking about constituents who are more conservative than the ones who elected him two years ago. Farenthold’s reelection was foretold when Texas mapmakers lopped off the most Democratic sections—those bordering Mexico— from his old district.
Plenty of folks in the House represent districts similar to Farenthold’s, but hope for compromise still exists. Rep. Dennis Ross, who represents a crimson district in central Florida, said that watching the returns on election night was like “getting punched in the gut,” and that, whether he likes it or not, Democrats have the advantage.
“You gotta give them their due,” he said before going bow hunting to clear his mind. “They’ve won. They won the White House and picked up seats in the Senate. The momentum is in their favor right now. The Republican Party has got to regroup. If we are judicious and not the party of ‘no,’ we can gain back some credibility.… Unlike the last two years, I think everything is on the table,” he said, adding that “everything” could even potentially include increasing tax revenue. “But I don’t want any revenue to be raised just to fund another program. We need to reduce the debt.”
Hearing this from one of the most conservative House members may warm the hearts of those hoping that Congress will move away from stalemate. But it’s not really new.
Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who is finishing his term as the freshman liaison to House leaders, said that Republicans aren’t saying anything that wasn’t floated last year. “I believe there is a sufficient number of votes to pass revenues this year; I thought that was true before [the debt-ceiling deal], too,” he said. And yet it didn’t happen, despite reports of a tentative deal between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner that would have raised $800 billion in revenues.
“I think the main difference isn’t in our positions, but in the atmosphere,” Scott said. “The way I understand politics is, the larger your margin, the harder it is for the majority party to govern. With fewer seats, more people stick to the beat.”
The moderate tone from Ross and Scott does not necessarily indicate much flexibility. Although House Republicans might go along with closing some tax loopholes, they say they are not willing to raise wealthy Americans’ tax rates. That was, of course, a central plank in Obama’s platform.
In the end, both sides in the House will spend the lame-duck session looking for something that everyone can label a victory. In other words, something that can fulfill 435 individual mandates. No doubt, they’ll know it when they see it.
This article appeared in print as "One Mandate? How About 435?"
This article appears in the November 17, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.