Hunting the Elusive Presidential Mandate

"Mandate: a command or authorization to act in a particular way given by the electorate to its representative." -- Random House Webster's College Dictionary

The post-election mandate hunt has begun. Television and radio talk show hosts have begun asking their guests whether they have sighted mandates, presidential or other kinds, or if they have seen any traces or foreshadowings of mandates.

Most answers have been tentative, but the print media has now taken up the chase. On Jan. 17, the Washington Post reported that its pollsters had found no clear mandate among recession fears, or for President George W. Bush's tax proposals or his "full" legislative agenda. On the following Sunday, the Post said that the president had a strong agenda but little mandate for decisive action.

Reporting "little mandate" introduces a new measure for reading the strength of mandates, which come in many varieties. They are usually quantified as greater mandates, which include impressive or overwhelming ones, and lesser mandates which include slim, doubtful or uncertain ones. (The former are usually discovered almost immediately after elections, gamboling about the White House lawn, while the latter are more difficult to find, sighted most often by political columnists.)

The mandate as a measure of presidential power first came into play at the end of the Carter administration when Vice President Walter Mondale explained the administration's defeat in 1980 by noting that first, it had no mandate, and second, it did not have an agenda to lean on. Fortunately for the Bush administration, even though it has little or no mandate, it does have an agenda.

The first in-depth study of mandates took place during the Ciinton administration. The study was not confused by the intrusion, or absence, of an agenda. That administration had many agendas, including one for national health insurance. The experts concluded that an administration is in trouble even though it has many agendas but does not have a mandate or two.

The late syndicated cartoonist, Jeff MacNelly, in an effort to help in the mandate hunt, saw the mandate as an ungainly bird, a kind of cross between a vulture and the common green heron, which is also known by the name, the "Slough Pumper." It is also hard to find, since it inhabits the tall grass and the reeds that grow on the edge of lakes and ponds.

Although impressive and even overwhelming mandates were identified in the Reagan administration, they seemed to turn into disappearing mandates in the first Bush administration and during the Clinton years. No one in the Clinton administration, even those closest to the president, claimed to have seen a greater mandate, or a lesser mandate, or even a vague or marginal one.

One of the mandate hunters who participated in the post-1992 mandate watches who is still practicing her art or science is journalist and author Elizabeth Drew. Early in the Clinton administration, she reported in The New Yorker that she had sighted and identified a previously unknown mandate, possibly a sub-species or hybrid, which she called the "pale" mandate. The Drew mandate is not pale blue or pale yellow or gray, but purely pale, possibly like the pale horse of the Apocalypse.

It may be helpful to present-day mandate hunters to include the pale mandate in their search. But they should remember at all times that elected officials do not win a mandate or achieve a mandate, and they cannot possibly create a mandate. Only the voters can give them a mandate, and when they do, it must be acted upon or it will become a disappearing mandate.

As Gertrude Stein might have said, "A mandate is a mandate is a mandate."

Eugene J. McCarthy, a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party senator from Minnesota from 1959 to 1970, previously a member of the House from 1949 to 1958, and was the first anti-war candidate in 1967 to run for president. This originally was published in The Hill, Washington D.C.

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