Monday, November 12, 2012

Rhetoric: Mandates and Obstructionism

Upon winning an election, politicians often insist that they have a mandate to carry out their policies. Likewise, sometimes they say that their opponents don't have a mandate to carry out their policies.

So, how can we tell if any of this is true?

The Support of the Population

Typically, politicians only receive the votes of a small part of the population when they are elected to office.

A president, for instance, may win the votes of half or even three-fifths of the people who actually voted. But rarely do they get a third of eligible voters, because many of them choose not to vote at all. And seldom if ever does a presidential candidate receive the votes of more than a quarter of the population as a whole.

Is this level of public support sufficient to give a politician a mandate?

A Split Between Branches

Another difficulty when it comes to mandates is that, in many elections, there is a split: one party is given control of the presidency (the executive branch), and a different party is given control of the Congress (the legislative branch).

And, even if a party loses badly in an election, they often retain enough seats in Congress to block legislation proposed by the party that won the election.

So what is the mandate in these cases? Does each party have a mandate to block the other, given that they're received enough votes to do just that? Do they have a mandate to obstruct their opponent? Or have they been given a mandate to cooperate and compromise (even if that means pulling back from some of the positions they ran on during the election)?

It's just not clear who has what mandate in these situations.

Unexpected Issues

Also, elected officials frequently have to make decisions on issues that weren't part of their electoral campaign, because those issues weren't foreseen as being prominent.

Terrorism wasn't a big part of the 2000 election, but it became an enormous issue after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Financial and auto bailouts weren't a big issue in the 2004 and 2006 elections, but after the financial crisis struck in 2007 and the Great Recession struck in 2008, they became unavoidable issues for elected officials to debate.

What mandates did these elected officials have regarding these issues, given that they were hardly discussed at the time they were elected?


"Mandate" rhetoric is similar to "Americans want" rhetoric, and is subject to similar problems. That is, it's often unclear what it is that Americans want, and so it's also unclear what mandates people have when they are elected.

So, anyone who claims to have a mandate to do something should have to defend their claim. Based on what do they have a mandate?

And, if the other party has enough representation to stop them from doing whatever it is they're trying to do, doesn't that other party also have a mandate to be obstructionist?

"America’s workforce is growing at the fastest pace since the year 2000. It is showing the kind of strength and durability that makes America’s economy right now the envy of the world despite the enormous headwinds that it’s receiving because of weaknesses in other parts of the world. In other words, the numbers, the facts don’t lie. And I think it’s useful, given that there seems to be an alternative reality out there from some of the political folks that America is down in the dumps. It’s not. America is pretty darn great right now, and making strides right now. … And I don’t expect that these facts and this evidence will convince some of the politicians out there to change their doomsday rhetoric, talking about how terrible America is. … The fact of the matter is, is that the plans that we have put in place to grow the economy have worked. They would work even faster if we did not have the kind of obstruction that we’ve seen in this town to prevent additional policies that would make a difference. … That’s what we should be debating. That’s the debate that is worthy of the American people. Not fantasy. Not name-calling. Not trying to talk down the American economy, but looking at the facts, understanding that we’ve made extraordinary progress in job growth; how can we continue to advance that, how can we make sure that people are successful in climbing the ladder of wage and income growth over the coming years; how do we make sure that we make this economy grow even faster. … The notion that we would reverse the very policies that helped dig us out of a recession, reinstitute those that got us into a hole -- plans that are being currently proposed by Republicans in Congress and by some of the candidates for President -- that’s not the conversation we should be having."
-- President Barack Obama, March 4, 2016.

Comment: There are several things going on here. First, Obama is accusing opponents (in particular, Republicans) of being "out of touch with reality", or perhaps of not caring about facts. Second, it sounds like he's also accusing Republicans of rooting for failure on the economy. Third, he is accusing them of obstruction. Fourth, he is calling for a higher standard of debate. Finally, he is making claims about what caused the Financial Crisis – he says it was Republican policies – and the reversal of that crisis – he says it was his own economic policies. But his support for these claims seems to be flimsy post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.

"We have been dealing, in the last seven years, with an unprecedented level of obstructionism against President Obama. Literally, it turns out, on the day that Obama was inaugurated, Republicans came together and said, what are we going to do? And what they concluded is we're going to obstruct, obstruct, obstruct, make it as difficult as he could to do anything. Now, we have had to fight through that and I've been at the president's side time and time again, getting a stimulus bill through when we were in the midst of a horrendous recession, The Affordable Care Act, etc. etc. etc. But what you are seeing today in this Supreme Court situation is nothing more than the continuous and unprecedented obstructionism that President Obama has gone through. And this -- and this is on top of this birther issue, which we heard from Donald Trump and others, a racist effort to try to de-legitimize the president of the United States."
-- Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), February 23, 2016.

Comment: Sanders is accusing Republicans of obstruction. He says that the the "birther" movement that claimed Obama wasn't born in the U.S.A. – and perhaps the obstruction from Republicans more generally? – is based on bigotry. His remarks involve a variety of generalizations and exaggerations: how many Republicans "came together" and declared they would obstruct everything Obama wanted to do? How many Republicans supported the "birther" movement? And, in opposing any piece of Obama's agenda, how many Republicans did it as a matter of racism against Obama as opposed to a legitimate difference of opinion? Is Sanders part of an effort to "delegitimize" all opposition to Obama, or would that also be an exaggeration?

FINEMAN: The House needs a dictatorial leader, or nothing will ever happen. And the Tea Party people understandably don’t like that if the person in charge is a moderate that doesn’t agree with them politically. So, Paul Ryan has enough conservative chops that he can sort of try to unify the whole party. But, he’s going to be spending all his time trying to deal with these Tea Party people. What he’s probably going to have to do, if in fact he gets in, is stage some kind of fight with them and defeat them, or take away their power, or go after them. I don’t know if he’s got the guts to do that. I don’t know if he’s got the numbers to do it.

KORNHEISER: Are they like ISIS trying to establish a Caliphate here?

FINEMAN: Yes! Yes! That’s a very good analogy! Without the violence obviously, but they are, yes, they are a rejectionist front. They don't want to legislate. They think legislation is capitulation.
-- Sportscaster Tony Kornheiser and pundit Howard Fineman, October 23, 2015, discussing Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his prospects to become Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Comment: Fineman is demonizing the Tea Party members of Congress by comparing them to ISIS (or even the House Speaker to a dictator). The Tea Party members aren't trying to set up anything like what ISIS wants – with or without violence – and they don't reject all legislating, they just don't like certain legislation that others are supporting. They aren't obstructionists who simply want to stop everything. When a president vetoes legislation, does that make them a "rejectionist"? Much of what Fineman is saying sounds exaggerated.

"Overall, though, we’re making enormous progress, and it does make you wonder, why is it that Republican politicians are so down on America. Have you noticed that? I mean, they are gloomy. They’re like Grumpy Cat. Everything is terrible according to them. We’re doomed. I mean, I know it’s political season, but you listen to them and they’ve constructed this entire separate reality. It’s like the Twilight Zone. And according to their story, their narrative, everything was terrific back in 2008 when unemployment was skyrocketing and uninsured rates were rising and folks were losing their homes and their jobs, we were engaged in two wars, bin Laden was still at large. If you were listening to them, those were like the good old days. The golden years. And then I came in and the Democrats came in, but according to them that’s when everything all went to heck. Which is strange. I mean, it’s a hard argument to make. There was an article, I think, in The New York Times today, or maybe it was yesterday, where they pointed out that it’s very hard for them to make the arguments they make about tax cuts for the wealthy and doing the same stuff that they’ve been promoting, and trying to eliminate regulations on the big banks and all that, when the empirical evidence shows that when Democrats control the White House and we’ve got a Democratic Congress the economy does better and when they’re in charge, it does worse. Just look at the facts. Don’t take my word for it, go back, take a look at – all right, here’s Bill Clinton’s presidency, and then there’s Bush presidency and then there’s my presidency and, take a look. And you’ve gotta feel bad for the fact-checkers, for the Republicans, because they’ve gotta spend hours trying to keep up with some of the crazy stuff that their candidates are claiming. And the reason they have to make up stuff is because they don’t have a record to run on. They’re offering the same policies that caused so many problems in the first place. They ran on them in 2008, they ran on them in 2012, they’re running on them now. … And it's a shame when politicians spend all their time trying to make people feel bad, or more typically, trying to make them feel scared. Talking down the country all the time because it serves your politics. … We [Democrats] have got an optimistic vision about where this country can go if the politics of obstruction and fear-mongering are set aside and we start working together as a country."
-- President Barack Obama, October 23, 2015.

Comment: First, Obama seems to be accusing Republicans of rooting for failure, obstruction, divisiveness and fear-mongering, and saying they are doing so for "political" motives. This is unfair. Obama, when he ran for office in 2004 and 2008, was frequently critical of the country's state of affairs; does this mean he was "down on America"? Second, Obama is distorting Republicans' position: what Republican has ever said that everything was terrific back in 2008? Third, Obama is making a "correlation is causation" argument when it comes to the economy and Democrats, which is additionally flawed because Democrats and Republicans aren't monolithic when it comes to policies (some Republicans have raised taxes, like Ronald Reagan, and some Democrats have lowered them, like JFK), and because Republicans were in control of Congress during the boom years of Clinton's presidency, Democrats were in control of Congress when the Great Recession happened, and Congress is in control of Republicans now that we're making "enormous progress". Of course, sometimes good or bad things happen when a party is in power that were set in motion earlier by a different party, or that are out of anyone's political control altogether.

"Why are all these Republicans so down on America?" Obama said. "Listening to them is really depressing and it doesn't match up with the truth."

Obama urged those attending a fundraiser for Washington Sen. Patty Murray to get involved in local, state and national politics.

"Our system is only as good as what we put into it," he said, criticizing the "false prophets who spout things that under examination don't really make any sense, but feed your biases and your fears."

"I'm proud of the fact that we are not just the party that is against everything," Obama said.
-- President Barack Obama, October 9, 2015, as related by a Politico story by Jennifer Shutt.

Comment: Obama is demonizing Republicans, saying they are fear-mongering and simply being obstructionists. Obama may also be accusing them of rooting for failure.

AVILA: And briefly, just on another subject, out in San Francisco, on the shooting that happened there. The administration has been focused on prioritizing criminals as far as deporting those who have violated our immigration laws. Is this a failure in this case where this man apparently -- a criminal -- came over time after time and still was able to keep coming and was not deported? Is there a problem between the cooperation between some cities in this country and the United States government? Where do you see the problem?

EARNEST: Well, Jim, for this particular case, I’d refer you to DHS. I can’t speak to the details of this particular case. … I would say -- and it bears repeating in this case -- that these efforts would be significantly augmented had Republicans not blocked common-sense immigration reform. You’ll recall that the piece of legislation that was blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives actually included the biggest-ever increase in border security. And that’s why it’s particularly disappointing that congressional action -- or congressional inaction, in this case -- has blocked efforts to put in place common-sense reforms that would be good for our country, good for our economy, and good for public safety.

AVILA: I hear your reluctance to comment on this case, but this case is being used by opponents of the administration to say that your policy is not working and that repeat criminals are coming across the border.

EARNEST: And what I’m saying is that those critics are individuals who oppose legislation that would have actually made a historic investment in border security. So I recognize that people want to play politics with this, but if you take a simple look at the facts, the fact is the President has done everything within his power to make sure that we’re focusing our law enforcement resources on criminals and those who pose a threat to public safety. And it’s because of the political efforts of Republicans that we have not been able to make the kind of investment that we would like to make in securing our border and keeping our communities safe.
-- White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, July 6, 2015, being questioned by ABC News’ Jim Avila regarding the July 1, 2015, killing of Kathryn Steinle by Francisco Sanchez.

Comment: Earnest engages in “common-sense”, “politicizing”, and “obstruction” rhetoric. There is a legitimate debate about what immigration reform should look like, and whether it needs to include all thing things that President Barack Obama would like it to include. Opposing Obama’s views on immigration does not amount to opposing common-sense. More, it is not “politicizing” Steinle’s death to mention it in or claim it to be relevant to the debate about immigration.

RUSH: Here's Ken in Miami. I'm glad you waited, sir. Great to have you on the program.

CALLER: The reason I called was that Republicans were elected to stop Obama. Obama publicly endorsed the USA Freedom Act, so shouldn't that be enough for the Republicans to be against it?

RUSH: Yeah. I feel your pain. The Republicans even acknowledged that they were elected to stop Obama, but then when they have the chance, they don't. Like in the trade deal. This transpacific partnership that still remains a big mystery. It's the Republicans that are gonna pull Obama -- it's caused me to be on the same page as Elizabeth Warren on this. Imagine how bad this thing must be. Actually, Elizabeth Warren's on the same page with me on this thing.
-- A caller to the Rush Limbaugh show, June 1, 2015.

Comment: The caller is saying Republicans have a mandate to stop Obama – or, perhaps, that they have not mandate to NOT stop Obama. The caller also argues that Obama's support for the USA Freedom Act is cause to oppose it, which is something of a reverse appeal to authority (and still invalid reasoning). Limbaugh notes that he agrees with his opponents on the transpacific trade deal, but doesn't seem to use that as an "ad hostes" argument.

Senate Republicans have kept [Loretta] Lynch — President Obama's nominee for attorney general — waiting for a confirmation vote longer than the combined time it took to confirm her seven predecessors. While doing so, they have retained in office Eric Holder, the attorney general whom congressional Republicans have branded an accessory to murder, a terrorist sympathizer and a supporter of voter fraud. … Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he won't allow the full Senate to vote on Lynch's nomination until Democrats stop filibustering a child sex-trafficking bill that contains a restriction on abortions. But many of these Republicans, it seems, are motivated by their opposition to anything Obama wants — even when it appears they are cutting off their nose to spite their face.
-- Pundit DeWayne Wickham, March 23, 2015.

Comment: Wickham is accusing Republicans of obstruction, and is demonizing them by saying they simply want to oppose anything Obama wants. Couldn't it be that they simply want to force the passage of the sex-trafficking bill?

"He doesn't like Congress. He's got his pen and his phone. And when Congress doesn't do what he says he's off doing his best Benito Mussolini. He doesn't like Netanyahu. Netanyahu just won in a landslide; Obama's never won in a landslide. The American people rose up in November and told Obama how they are disgusted with his programs and his policies. And what did he do? He turned around and spat in our faces. And he does the same in 2010 when they lose the House of Representatives. Obama has more ability to work with dictators and genocidal types than he does with people who are elected democratically. The fact of the matter is, Sean, I want to say this and this is important. Eric Holder said that this nation is full of cowards because we won't have a discussion about race. Well, I think this nation needs to have a discussion about what's going on in this White House and this administration about anti-Semitism. Because this White House and it's reaching out to Sharpton, the Muslim Brotherhood, CAIR, all these radical nut jobs and groups, their policies which are -- it's not just Netanyahu. They're willing to throw Israel over the side for the Islam regime in Tehran. This president's former relationships with [Rashid] Khalidi, the professor in Columbia now, with Wright the so-called reverend from Chicago. This president has a lot to answer for, and his conduct is contemptible. And I don't care how many liberal Democrat donors -- hold on now. I don't care how many liberal Democrat donors he has who are Jewish. He can hide behind them all he wants. But Mr. Holder, Mr. Obama, let's have a national discussion about the anti-Semitism that reeks from your administration."
-- Pundit Mark Levin, March 18, 2015, appearing on Sean Hannity's show on Fox News.

Comment: In what sense is Levin comparing President Barack Obama with Italian dictator Mussolini that doesn't amount to demonizing? Levin is also issuing "Americans want" rhetoric regarding the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, insisting that Obama has no mandate for what he is doing. Calling someone anti-Semitic is basically an accusation of racism. Finally, Levin is accusing Obama of guilt by association, for Obama's links to Rev. Al Sharpton, Rashid Khalidi, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and others.

"I have no more campaigns to run. My only agenda -- I know because I won both of them."
-- President Barack Obama, January 20, 2015, during the 2015 State of the Union address.

Comment: It's not clear what Obama was trying to communicate with this comment. It's certainly true that he won two presidential elections — in 2008 and 2012 — but does that mean he believes he has a mandate to carry out his agenda? If so, how does the fact that his party, the Democrats, lost many congressional seats in the 2010 and 2014 midterms affect that mandate?


Examples from 2012.

David Brooks says the critics of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin who compare him to “Hitler, Mussolini and Mubarak” are “amusingly Orwellian.” After all, Governor Walker was elected! Yet, did the governor and his party campaign on the promise of breaking the public sector unions? Did they tell the voters they would, if elected, end the traditional contracting with public unions, and thus “make everybody hurt”? Talk about Orwellian.

David Brooks repeats a claim that Gov. Scott Walker makes: As governor, he is simply doing what he said he would do. In fact, while he said repeatedly that he would ask public employees to pay a bigger share of pensions and health care costs, Mr. Walker did not during his long campaign make clear that he would move to take away bargaining rights, essentially putting public employee unions out of business.
-- Letters to the editor of The New York Times -- from Gerald Cavanaugh and Bill Christofferson, respectively -- published February 24, 2011, regarding the Wisconsin labor debates.

Comment: Cavanaugh and Christofferson are essentially making the argument that Walker doesn't have a mandate to curtail collective bargaining by public sector unions because -- during the campaign -- he didn't say he planned to do that.

"Well, let's talk about health care right now because the fact of the matter is -- the fact of the matter is that I do provide universal health care. The only difference between Senator Clinton's health care plan and mine is that she thinks the problem for people without health care is that nobody has mandated, forced them to get health care. That's not what I'm seeing … What I see are people who would love to have health care. They desperately want it. But the problem is they can't afford it, which is why we have put forward legislation … a plan that makes sure that it is affordable to get health care that is as good as the health care that I have as a member of Congress. That's what the American people are looking for, that's what they deserve and that's what I intend to provide as president of the United States."
-- Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), November 15, 2007, during Democratic Primary debate in Las Vegas, NV, with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY).

Comment: During the campaign, Obama opposed requiring individuals to purchase health insurance (a requirement known as the "individual mandate"). As president, however, Obama changed his position, and on March 23, 2010, he signed into law health care reform that included that requirement. Did he have a mandate to do that?

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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