I want to throw this open for debate amongst you New Statesman readers, but up front let me say that talk of political mandates is one of those political parlour games that often doesn’t mean very much (remember people wanted Gordon Brown to call an election in the autumn of 2007 so he could establish his own mandate, was it necessary, no.) In the America they’ll probably refer to the 1990s as the Bill Clinton era for a long time, even though he never won a majority of the popular vote. George W. Bush showed that you can aggressively, and for a time successfully, seize the reins of power even if you barely ascended to the presidency.
It’s been a generation since Reagan’s 1984 landslide, and I think there’s a tendency to forget the impact, real and imagined, of a sweeping victory of the kind Obama appears poised to win. (It’s worth noting too that in 1984, while the America just come through a recession and the Cold War was still hot, there was nothing like the unsettledness that the financial crisis and overseas military engagements are causing now.)
You’re already seeing signs of the impact of the expectation of an Obama win. McCain is going all out to try to win this thing, but let’s be honest, his party isn’t. You don’t have to look too closely to see Republican officeholders running for cover, and not just from Bush, McCain, and Palin – but from specific policies and tactics, too. As the political tsunami approaches the beach, it’s everyone for themselves.
But all that being said, what will an Obama landslide translate into in the first year he’s in office? It’s still not clear to many. One of the most toxic effects of the decline of the two parties as political institutions and the rise of the modern TV-based political campaign, with its cult of personality politics, is that the election becomes a referendum on the candidates themselves, rather than on broad policies or platforms.
The peril of the modern political campaign is not its nastiness (come on, we’re all adults). It’s that it supplants a real debate, so that by the time the election actually happens and a victor is declared, it’s not entirely clear what we all collectively just decided. Did we just vote for universal health care, or against that cranky old man and his dimwitted running mate?
So given the terms of the debate this campaign season, the issues facing the country, and the mood of the electorate, and assuming we see an Obama landslide next on the 4th November, what does Obama have a mandate for?