Column: Democrats' Misunderstood Mandate

This story was written by Neil Albstein, The Johns Hopkins News-Letter
Barack Obama has now been president-elect for a full week. He quickly named a chief of staff and has since kept the nation wondering about the breed of the future first pooch. In the meantime, the Democrats are readying themselves for their brave new world of Congressional domination. Why shouldn't they? Obama and the Democrats have been given a strong mandate from the people, haven't they? Haven't the people made it clear they are ready to move on from the strong conservative movement that has basically ruled this country for over 20 years?

The answer is no.

All that is required to empower the Democrats to redefine American policy is the majority of seats in Congress coupled with a liberal Democratic president. They have that. The people have sent a clear message that they are displeased with the Republican-dominated government headed by George W. Bush. However, this does not mean that America woke up on the morning of Nov. 4 a far more liberal nation than it was four years ago when it reelected the same man that is receiving the lions' share of the blame for the Republicans' general failure in this election. What America demonstrated on Election Day was a rejection of George W. Bush and the Republican Party he led.

Bush's Republicans spent billions of dollars the conservatives didn't want spent on programs liberals didn't want money spent on. Bush's Republican Party was riddled with scandals that were unacceptable to all Americans, liberal or conservative. War Hawks and Peaceniks alike agree that the Iraq War has been horribly mishandled, regardless of their views on whether we should be in Iraq at all. Americans are ready for a change, and Obama's campaign understood and capitalized on this desire.

Now the Democrats are faced with a choice. It is up to them to interpret and act on whatever mandate they have been given. They can say that the mandate for change means that Americans are ready for an era of liberal policies. They can become drunk with power, gorging themselves on pork and corruption. Or they can attempt to understand the nature of the mandate they have been given and govern moderately and honestly.

Americans' views have likely not changed much. The fiscal conservatives who have greatly contributed to keeping Bush and the Republicans in office recently turned on Bush because of their fiscal conservatism. Bush's Republicans lost sight of this part of their base, choosing instead to focus on the social conservative base, who have no problem with governmental spending, as long as it goes to such programs as "Faith Based Initiatives" as opposed to, say, healthcare for the poor. Fiscal conservatives also often oppose costly foreign wars, leading to further conflict with the Bush administration. Many of these voters turned on the Republicans for this reason and voted for Democrats, because they felt that their money, if it had to be spent, should be spent differently. These voters will quickly turn on the Democrats if government spending continues to rise.

The war, too, caused many to jump to the Democrats. The Iraq War was supposed to have been short and easy. It has been neither, and the people are frustrated. But this does not mean that the people's dedication to national security has weakened, and if the Democrats forget this, they will lose the support of these voters.

The economy, of course, was arguably the deciding factor in this election. It became clear to many voters that Republican policies were harming, or at least not helping, the economy. However, if the economy stagnates under the Democratic regime the way it did under Jimmy Carter, those who jumped on the Democratic bandwagon will jump off very quickly.

If so many voters are so weakly tied to Democratic control, the strenth of the mandate begins to wane. The Democrats must now try to appease the whole country. Barack Obama acknowledged this on election night. If they succeed, we could be facing an era of Democratic power that rivals or surpasses the dying era of Republican dominance. If they fail, America could quickly revert to Republican control.

The two-party system in this country has created a dynamic that can result in punishment of one party being misunderstood as a mandate for the other party. Such misunderstood mandates will not last. The Democrats now have the opportunity to earn the opportunity they have been given. I am hopeful but far from optimistic.
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