Elections Government History Truth

The “Mandates” That Never Were

By David G. Johnson

If I were in possession of a time machine, the top of my destination list would be the Constitutional Convention. Maybe the First Continental Congress. Or really any of the seminal gatherings at which our Founding Fathers hotly debated the ideas leading to the formation of the United States.

Among the topics I would hear in those epic debates, one concept that would never arise would be the notion of a “presidential mandate.”

Hard though it may be for our modern ears to hear, the Founders did not view the presidency to be what it has become — that of the “most powerful person on the planet.” Actually, they might have been terrified at the thought.

What I might see in my time time travel would be the Founders viewing the job a little like that of the president of your homeowners’ association: a position no one really wants but undertakes out of a sense of civic duty.

They understood that the President of the United States would be imbued with limited power they granted him — the purpose of which was primarily to execute the will of the people and the states as articulated through their representatives in Congress.

“Nothing shall be wanting on my part to inform, as far as in my power, the legislative judgment, nor to carry that judgment into faithful execution.” – President Thomas Jefferson, First Annual Message to Congress, December 8, 1801

This was, for example, why the President could not actually declare war. It was the job of the President to guide a war declared by Congress as the Commander-in-Chief, and only such a war.

Thus, the Presidency was not originally the prize to be won at any cost. It is only after a couple of centuries of expansion of government at all levels that we now have a powerful Chief Executive. And as a result, now individuals, special interest groups, and God only knows who else spends hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the outcome of the presidential election.

Where did the “mandate” come from?

In the Autumn 1990 issue of Political Science Quarterly, Yale professor Robert Dahl looked into the history of what he described as the Myth of the Presidential Mandate. He argues that prior to Andrew Jackson, presidents infrequently used their veto power and did so only on Constitutional grounds.

Jackson’s innovation, according to Dahl, was to use the veto “…as a defense of his or his party’s policies.”

Dahl traces a shift in the theory of presidential elections, beginning with Jackson’s 1832 reelection, toward the view that it was a way for the people to directly ratify the policies of the candidate. While Jackson didn’t seem to promote this idea himself, much less use the term “mandate,” it was only a few elections later when one of his successors did exactly that:

“The people, by the constitution, have commanded the President, as much as they have commanded the legislative branch of the Government, to execute their will….” – President James K. Polk, State of the Union Address, December 5, 1848

This shift, Dahl contends, culminated in the Progressive thinking of Woodrow Wilson who, in 1908, prior to his election as President, wrote:

“The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can…. There is no national party choice except that of President. No one else represents the people as a whole, exercising a national choice… The nation as a whole has chosen him, and is conscious that it has no other political spokesman.” – Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government.

Wilson took this idea seriously, issuing a record 1,803 executive orders in true Progressive style, roughly equivalent to the sum of his two immediate predecessors, who between them issued more than all the preceding U.S. presidents combined. You see the arc. Perhaps it’s no accident that the Federal Reserve and the Income Tax both came into being during his extra-Constitutional watch.

In the century since Wilson aggressively acted on his words, succeeding presidents have claimed their election as a “mandate” from the people. Even the most casual observer of history, however, will realize that this claim is a universal exaggeration. The largest percentage of votes received by the winner of a Presidential election was only 61% (Lyndon Johnson in 1964). While a mathematical majority, it can hardly be viewed as a universal demand from the people for a specific policy to be enacted. More recently however, elections have been bare majorities, or even pluralities. Trump received less than 47 percent of the vote.

Every election is different. But the forces that influence voters are far too complex for any objective, rational person to conclude that such close elections are a “mandate” — beyond theory and rhetoric.

As neither Trump or Clinton was going to get more than a plurality — less than half of voters — neither was going to have a mandate. But both would claim it as Trump’s campaign has. This is a long-term, bipartisan fiction that Americans should not buy into. What Trump does have is a duty to lead well and keep his promises.

David G. Johnson is Founder and CEO of Grow the Dream, a strategic marketing firm based in Sarasota, Fla.

Elections Government Politics

Will the Outcome of the Election Matter as Much as We Think?

By David G. Johnson

Public reaction to last week’s election results has been startling, from rioting on the left to Washington power-brokers on the right cozying up to the incoming President.

But will the outcome of this election really matter in the long term?

I’m certainly aware of the long-lasting import of SCOTUS appointments and similar decisions made by the chief executive. But it remains to be seen whether we have, in fact, dodged a bullet or signed our own death warrant as a nation.

What concerns me more than ever is this simple, undeniable fact:

In our Republic, power still rests firmly in the grasp of those paying for it.

One factor that seemed to drive those who voted for Donald Trump was that he ran as an outsider to the political establishment. Yet it appears the new President-elect has immediately begun to align himself with Washington power brokers to run his transition team and fill some 4,000 jobs in his new administration. Some experience in Washington’s swampy ways makes sense, but this bears watching. Insiders will not bring the change that Trump supporters voted for.

The conciliatory tone and gracious words of both Secretary Clinton and President Obama were, at first, impressive and hopeful. But what began as “let’s all get along” quickly escalated to “love fest,” which has left me wondering if perhaps these are all nothing more than players on the same team of massive, centralized government for the elite few. There’s almost a welcoming of the new guy — a savant at swaying public opinion — to the most exclusive club in the world.

We’ve seen it before. President George W. Bush buddied up to President Clinton and the limited government Republican expanded government dramatically. Of course, President Obama has far surpassed that. What will Trump do on this point of limited government and deficit spending? It’s a critical question that rarely came up during the sordid campaign. And that’s not promising.

I’ve long contended that Obama, with his big government approach and radical expansion of public debt — to say nothing of the expansion of executive power — was merely the logical next link in a long chain of Presidents who had done the same things, albeit on a less imperial scale.

Trump is already bearing all the signs of continuing this trend, despite his campaign promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington and be a president for the people. His plans to spend yet more money we don’t have on massive infrastructure projects, and cozying up to the powerful elites, does not bode well for the goals of reducing big government and slowing the rate of public indebtedness — a pace which long ago reached a truly insane level.

To those who argue that the federal debt is a non-issue, consider that a 2014 analysis in Forbes by columnist Jeffrey Dorfman placed U.S. public debt at 688 percent of federal revenues using 2010 numbers. Once 2013 numbers became available, it appears that US public debt had grown to 979% of of Federal revenues. This is not sustainable and frankly an immoral act against our children. A bankrupt America is not much of an America.

Lest we allow ourselves to be convinced that this trend is unique to Obama, consider what other Presidents in recent memory have done, shown below as a percent of their predecessor’s cumulative debt totals.

Percent Change in Public Debt (Source: Federal Reserve) via Washington Post
via Washington Post

Servicing the public debt becomes a bigger and bigger line item in our budget each year, and there are significant reasons to believe that it has already become unsustainable. One shudders to think about what the outcome of this trend will be.

In the meantime, the very public fight over social questions during our election cycles has served as a distraction from this disturbing pattern of borrowing and spending. Those administrations that can be described as “left of center” tend to spend more on social agendas, and those that can be described as “right of center” tend to spend more on national defense. But what both sides have in common for decades is increasing the debt and spending money we don’t have. This is the forgotten crisis.

The rich rules over the poor,
And the borrower is servant to the lender.
Proverbs 22:7

While the left and the right fight over the admittedly important issues of abortion, healthcare, immigration, and who uses which bathroom, those who are willing to pay for power are plundering our pockets and those of future generations of Americans. Buying voters’ support with our children’s money is just wrong. But will it change with this election? The evidence so far that it will is scant.

David G. Johnson is Founder and CEO of Grow the Dream, a strategic marketing firm based in Sarasota, Fla.