Mandate Madness:

If mimicry is the best form of flattery, conservatives are making a lot of people blush. Lately, they've been stealing rhetoric at will -- even if they railed against that very rhetoric just months ago. During last December's electoral fiasco in Florida, for example, Republican pundits happily drew upon lefty postmodernist theories of human subjectivity to argue against the hand recounting of presidential ballots, even though they usually refer to those theories as politically correct nonsense. But with the latest political earthquake -- the shift in control of the Senate from the Republicans to the Democrats -- this kind of conservative parroting has reached a new pinnacle.

Led by a hyperbolic Trent Lott in the Senate -- and, in the media, a hysterical Wall Street Journal editorial page -- conservatives are now saying of Senate Democrats exactly what Democrats said of the dubiously elected George W. Bush. Tom Daschle's crew, the right claims, lacks the political legitimacy to move forward with its agenda. Or as Lott put it in a recent memo: "The Democrats hold a plurality, not majority, in the Senate, and their effective control of the Senate lacks the moral authority of a mandate from the voters."

Broadly speaking, political scientists haven't tended to look with much kindness upon the wishy-washy notion of a popular mandate. After all, poll after poll shows that voters on Election Day don't really have a clear sense of what it is they're voting their politicians into office to do. Indeed, almost by definition, any talk of political mandates has an anti-realist, escapist aspect. No one disputes that George W. Bush is our president or that Tom Daschle is Senate majority leader -- or that both will get done whatever they can so long as they hold on to their positions. But by challenging the notion that either has a mandate, critics shuttle off to a fantasy world in which democracy is flawless and the general will is infallibly discerned.

In this case, the trip through the looking glass began when the ousted Senate majority leader Trent Lott began raving about a "'coup of one' that subverted the will of the American voters who elected a Republican majority." As the always apt Michael Kinsley put it, "doctors believe this may be a fevered reference to Senator James Jeffords's switch from Republican to Independent."

The apparent logic behind Lott's contention has to do with the fact that Jeffords was originally elected as a Republican. But mandate-wise, it's hard to see how this has any bearing on the change of power in the entire Senate: If Jeffords' party switch subverts the will of any voters at all, it's only the relatively small group of Vermonters who originally put him in office. Jeffords was re-elected overwhelmingly as a Republican in 2000, but in that same year, scattered Senate races in various other states resulted in a 50-50 tie and a net gain of seats for Democrats.

It may be hard to see how the popular will in the November election was thwarted by Jeffords' move, but the irony in Lott's proclamation is quite apparent. Republicans are usually particularly solicitous about the cherished role of states in our federal system of government. But under Lott's mandate theory, the fact that each state elects two senators gets thrown out in the rush to roll the American people up into a ball of concentrated electoral will.

Clearly, the now deposed Lott is suffering from delusions of Republican grandeur. Kinsley thinks this has partly to do with conservatives' easily awakened sense of "manifest destiny": Once they get into power they instantly believe that their agenda was somehow meant to be. Historically in this country, faith in manifest destiny hasn't always corresponded with a firm grasp on reality. So perhaps it's no surprise that like Lott, the right wing editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has completely lost it over the Senate power shift. In a recent unsigned editorial that sounds a lot like it was written by Lott himself, the Journal has this to say:

When the national vote ended in November, the Republicans controlled the Senate by one seat. With Strom Thurmond refusing to comply, the Daschle Democrats recruited the GOP's thinnest reed to capture control of all Senate committees and perquisites without a single vote cast. With the Democrats able to claim only the slimmest fig-leaf of legitimacy for their new control, the Republicans' calls for evenhanded treatment for Mr. Bush's efforts to assemble a government are certainly not out of order. If indeed the Senate bogs down in a filibuster this week, the origins of the gridlock should be clear.

The Journal appears to have fallen prey to mandate madness, and is filing dispatches from faerie land. Consider the first sentence above. When the final vote was tallied -- i.e., when all the various recounts were done and whatnot -- the Senate was tied 50-50, with vice president Dick Cheney casting the tie-breaking vote. The Republicans emphatically did not lead by one seat. Granted, at the time voting ended on November 7th, we still didn't know who had won the extremely close Washington State Senate race between the incumbent Republican Slade Gorton and the Democratic challenger Maria Cantwell (or, for that matter, another close race between Republican Spencer Abraham and Democrat Debbie Stabenow in Michigan). Though at various points it looked as though Gorton might win, in the end he lost by just over 2,000 votes.

That crucial little fact seems to have escaped the Wall Street Journal, whose mandate theory truly boggles the mind. Think about it: In the days following the November 7th election, as the tight Gorton-Cantwell race remained unresolved, it may have seemed possible that the Republicans would control the Senate 51-49. But from this prior state of uncertainty about the will of voters in Washington -- since resolved -- the Journal infers that the GOP to this day has a popular mandate to run the entire Senate! Never mind that after Washington State actually recounted its votes to see what really happened on November 7th, Cantwell was announced the winner and the Senate was tied 50-50. It has been so ever since, up until Jeffords' switch.

The Wall Street Journal's argument is simply an embarrassment. Yet something like it has become a regular line of conservative pundits discussing the Senate switch. As Tucker Carlson put it on CNN's Crossfire recently:

The majority of Americans didn't vote for a Democratic Congress, for a Democratic Senate. They got one because one man, Jim Jeffords, decided to change his vote. So I think you'll have to agree, logic will compel you to agree, that the Senate, the Democratic Senate is not a legitimate Democratic Senate. It's a little coup that took place.

Carlson is an affable commentator and usually fairly reasonable. Usually. The fact that so many on the right have been able to abandon all logic and reasonableness in the wake of the Jeffords affair -- and have concocted a wacko theory of senatorial mandates that is riddled with contradictions -- can only be a sign of shock, disappointment, and serious mental turmoil.

In the end, whether or not Senate Democrats have a mandate is probably just as irrelevant as whether George W. Bush has one. What counts is not whether the people who voted on November 7th intended Bush to enact his agenda, or intended Senate Democrats to thwart it. The point is that now, Tom Daschle and gang have the power to stop Bush in his tracks.