The Elusive Mandate for Republicans

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...Mandates are elusive because voters cast ballots for people, not policies. As fluctuating polls demonstrate, public preferences represent an ephemeral composite of considerations — some contradictory, like the simultaneous desire for minimal taxes and robust services.

Mr. Obama, running in 2008, promised “affordable, accessible health care for every American.” He won 53 percent of the vote.

But Mr. Obama promised many things and watched as economic conditions deteriorated drastically during his campaign. Republicans ferociously contested his mandate on health care — and made political gains even while failing to block the legislation.

In practical terms, concluded Mr. Stimson and his co-authors, Lawrence J. Grossback and David A. M. Peterson, policy mandates exist only when both parties embrace common interpretations of an election’s results. Since World War II, that has happened only three times, by the authors’ reckoning.

One was 1965, after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide election over Barry Goldwater. Moderate Republicans, battling Goldwater conservatives for party control, joined Democrats to create Medicare.

Another was 1981, after Ronald Reagan won the presidency. Conservative Democrats, convinced that their party had moved too far to the left, joined Republicans to cut income tax rates.

The third was 1995, after Newt Gingrich led the successful effort to break the Democrats’ 40-year grip on the House. President Bill Clinton conceded, “The era of big government is over.”

Even so, Mr. Clinton ultimately outmaneuvered Mr. Gingrich as he pursued the Republican mandate. The fact that Mr. Clinton outlasted Mr. Gingrich in office represents a cautionary tale for Speaker John A. Boehner....

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