Thursday, March 13, 2014

Of Mandates and Bellwethers

Of all the words that are often used in politics, perhaps the two most overrated are mandate and bellwether. Pundits are constantly invoking both whenever a candidate wins what they deem is a pivotal election.

Last year, you'll recall, I wrote about the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections. Democrats were absolutely beaming over their win in a red state and Republicans were beside themselves over their win in a blue state. Both sides were convinced they had made some kind of statement.

Of course, both sides were completely wrong. In Virginia, Terry McAuliffe was simply a slightly less flawed candidate than his opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, who was never able to shake his Tea Party roots. In New Jersey, Chris Christie had the good fortune of being one of the few sane Republicans left running against, well, nobody. An establishment Republican and a centrist Democrat winning. Newsworthy? Hardly. If anything, what both elections proved was that the electorate, if anything, is far less ideological than either party's bases would care to admit.

Want proof? Witness Bill de Blasio's fall from grace in New York. His huge win last November had progressives practically drooling. Visions of George McGovern and Walter Mondale, like sugarplums, danced in their heads. Less than three months into his administration, his poll numbers are hovering somewhere between George Bush and David Berkowitz. Okay, that's a little unfair. I'm sure Berkowitz would poll better today. It's amazing what 35 years can do for an image.

The point is that de Blasio and his supporters thought they had a mandate. Turns out they didn't. The new mayor is finding out the hard way that governing is a lot more difficult than campaigning. From the way he handled the school closings during the snow storm - in which he got into a pissing contest with, of all people, Al Roker - to the Charter School controversy, de Blasio's popularity is sinking faster than the Titanic. Truth be told, he's been a bit of a dick. And that's saying something, given that Chris Christie is the governor of New Jersey. This is what you get when you start believing your own hype.

And speaking of hype, let's talk about the Florida 13th special election for a moment. This was the election that pundits predicted would be a bellwether for the midterms. With Republican David Jolly narrowly defeating Democrat Alex Sink, once again both parties are clamoring to spin the results to suit their agendas. For Republicans, this was a referendum on Obamacare. For Democrats, outside money proved the difference.

And, as you might surmise having carefully read the above, once again both sides are dead wrong. Like the gubernatorial race in Virginia last year, what we had here were two lousy and deeply flawed candidates, with Sink having the slight edge in flawdom. Hell, she didn't even live in the damn district.  And though the district had gone for Obama both in '08 and '12, it had been reliably red for years. If anything, the fact that Sink only lost by two points is the silver lining for Democrats.

On the two main talking points - Obamacare and outside money - that dog is also not hunting. For one thing the Jolly campaign barely mentioned it in their ads. In fact, when it got mentioned at all, the concern was about supposed cuts to Medicare, which was absurd because the law has no bearing on Medicare. Insofar as outside money stealing the election from Sink, that doesn't seem to have been the case. If anything, according to Slate magazine, Sink's campaign had a slight edge here.

I'm not saying that Obamacare won't play a crucial role in November. It might. Then again, it might not. Michael Tomasky has some good insights on this issue that are worth reading. And outside money will continue to be a problem so long as the Citizens United decision stands. It's just that premature conclusions based on singular events almost never pan out.

We all remember the 2010 Tea Party-led mandate, just like we remember the 2006 and 2008 progressive mandates. Turns out neither amounted to much, primarily because there was never any mandate to speak of. It existed only in the minds of those who created it. The fact is that the electorate was simply taking out its frustration on the powers that be. In '06 and '08 it was the Republicans; in 2010 it was the Democrats. Anyone with the title incumbent next to his or her name was fair game.

Mandates, like bellwethers, usually end up in the dust heap of history just waiting for the next sucker to pick them up and run them up the flagpole. The real mystery is why anyone still salutes.

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