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David Sirota Headshot

Mandate '08: Reagan vs. Roosevelt

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In the last week, I've been making the point anywhere I can that the 2008 election's ideological turn has all but guaranteed a major mandate for the next president. As I write in my new newspaper column out today, with both John McCain and Barack Obama clearly making this a choice between Reagan-ism and Roosevelt-ism, whoever enters the White House will be expected to govern with the ideology he has been the vehicle for in the race.

Some may say that presidential mandates only happen when a presidential candidate wins in a landslide, but I disagree. Mandates are more about the terms of the campaign and how clear those terms were than the margin of victory. The more clear the choices are, the more clear the mandate the victor has. That's because a mandate derives from us, the people. The more clearly we know what we are voting for and against when we cast a vote for a candidate, the more clear the ideological expectations for that candidate once he/she gets into office.

This is why I believe George W. Bush did not have a mandate in 2000 - not because he barely won the election (or, as it were, "won" the election), but because the themes of the campaign were muddled by his "compassionate conservative" meme and Al Gore's less full-throated Democratic progressivism (which, to his credit, Gore has subsequently changed from). That is, it wasn't totally clear to most Americans that there was a huge gaping ideological divide between Bush and Gore.

This is also why I believe Bush did receive a mandate in 2004 - because while he only won by a small margin, the country knew the ideological choice it was making. There was no question that Bush was anything other than a pro-war neoconservative on foreign policy, and a royalist on economic policy, and that Kerry was very different. And when voters went into the voting booth and chose that ideology, they unfortunately gave him a mandate to continue governing with that ideology.

This same dynamic is shaping up today because the final stretch of this campaign has been far less about personal Swift Boat-style attacks (though there certainly has been some of that against Obama), and far more about ideology, at least at the public level between the two candidates. In their own ways, they are both telling us that a vote for McCain is a vote for Reaganism and a vote for Obama is a vote for Roosevelt-ism. And so it doesn't matter if Obama wins by one vote, or by a landslide. If a guy billed as a black Muslim socialist/terrorist can win an election in such an ideologically polarized environment, it is a huge rejection of conservatism - one with a mandate for arguably more progressive governance than Obama himself is even proposing.

That's why conservatives are freaking out - they realize that under such circumstances, a McCain loss isn't just a loss for one candidate in one election, but a much more far-reaching rejection of an entire ideology. That's not to say that conservatism won't make a comeback, should Obama win. But it is to say that an Obama win would deal a much deeper blow to the conservative movement than had this race ended on less ideological terms.

To be sure, the fight to define this mandate will be fierce. There exist entire corporate-funded think tanks in Washington whose whole raison d'etre is to shape the perception of a presidential mandate in the three months after the quadrennial election. As my column shows, we're already seeing that manipulation machine kick into gear preemptively, with conservatives claiming with a straight face that even though McCain made this campaign a referendum on Reaganism, America remains a "center-right nation" (and LexisNexis that phrase "center-right nation" - you will see it is being repeated ad nauseum by the Punditburo, because, of course, electing a guy billed as a black Islamic version of Karl Marx obviously - clearly! - means we're a more conservative country than ever).

But because of the tone and tenor of this election, it will be laughable for conservatives to claim an Obama win is anyhing other than a wholesale rejection of the right's bankrupt philosophy.

You can read the whole column here.

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