Since it has become virtually impossible for Democrats and their allies to avoid acknowledging that they have received a "shellacking," to use President Obama's phrase, they have now settled on a new theme: Republicans may have won, but they don't have a mandate.
"Republicans are now trying to create a mandate where none exists," opined former White House communications director Anita Dunn. This election "wasn't a mandate for the policies most Republicans campaigned on," echoed AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. "Voters deliver a message, not necessarily a mandate," reported USA Today. "It was hardly an order from the American people to discard the progress of the last two years," editorialized the New York Times.
No mandate? If there ever was an election with a clear set of differences between the parties, this was it. This was a choice of bold colors, not pale pastels. For the last two years, President Obama and congressional Democrats had expanded the size, cost, and intrusiveness of the federal government. While some Democrats tried to run away from the administration and its record, the general message was, "Stay the course." As President Obama said repeatedly, he believed that his policies were working. The Democratic message was that voting Republican would reverse the "progress" of the last two years.
And Republicans, almost unanimously, made it clear that that was exactly what they intended to do. Could anyone have voted for the Republicans without knowing that they intended to cut spending, cut taxes, and repeal Obamacare? If it wasn't enough for the Republicans themselves to have said so, Democrats spent hundreds of millions of dollars on commercials warning voters that Republicans were going to "give tax cuts to the rich," and cut spending on everything from Social Security and Medicare to unemployment benefits and college loans.
Voters listened and said pretty unequivocally: That's exactly what we want.
On Election Day, 56 percent of voters told exit pollsters that the government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals. Given that exit polls tend to skew Democratic, this is a pretty remarkable repudiation of big government. And 39 percent of voters said that reducing the deficit should be the next Congress's top priority, even more than said creating jobs.
On health care, exit polls showed that at least half of voters wanted to repeal Obamacare, an almost unprecedented level of opposition for a major entitlement expansion. But an even better measure might be an election-night Rasmussen telephone poll that found 59 percent of voters in favor of repeal. A Kaiser Foundation survey of voters found similar results: 56 percent of midterm voters said they wanted to see some or all of the law repealed. Another post-election survey found that 45 percent saw their vote as a specific message of opposition to the health-care bill.
Or look at the election results themselves. If voters had simply been expressing a general dissatisfaction with the economy, or if this were a simple anti-incumbent "tantrum" (as a number of liberal pundits put it), then Republican incumbents would have suffered equally. But only three incumbent Republicans lost, all in highly Democratic districts.
Nor did voters take their wrath out on Democrats indiscriminately. Democrats who voted for all three of the major Obama initiatives — the stimulus, health-care reform, and cap-and-trade — went down in disproportionate numbers. Health-care reform was particularly deadly. Eight Democrats in the House switched from opposing the bill on early votes to supporting it for final passage. Six sought reelection, and five lost. On the other hand, Democrats who voted against one or more of the three bills were far more likely — though not guaranteed — to survive.
At the state level, GOP candidates for governor went out of their way to preach economic austerity and government cutbacks. If anything, candidates like John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin were even more hard core than their congressional counterparts. Yet Republicans gained six governorships. And successful Democratic candidates like Andrew Cuomo in New York campaigned against new taxes and in favor of spending cuts. Even Jerry Brown in California campaigned on the dubious idea that he would be the candidate best able to stand up to the public-employees' unions.
At the same time, voters were rejecting taxes and calling for limited government in state ballot measures across the nation. In Washington State, a measure to create a state income tax was defeated by a stunning 2-to-1 margin, despite the measure's big-money backing by the likes of Bill Gates's father and the teachers' and public-employees' unions. Washington voters also passed a measure restoring a two-thirds vote requirement for the state legislature to raise taxes. California voters made it more difficult to increase fees. Voters in Kansas City and Missouri took the first steps in repealing city earnings taxes. Missouri and Montana voters approved a prohibition on real-estate transfer taxes. In all, eleven of fifteen anti-tax measures passed nationwide.
Arizona and Oklahoma passed ballot measures opposing the health-care law's individual mandate, while Colorado voters fell just short of doing likewise. Missouri voters had already done so earlier this year.
It is true that voters did not express any great love for the Republican party. This was not a partisan mandate. But it was an ideological mandate. Voters want a smaller, less expensive, less intrusive government. As a result, they rejected the party favoring big government and voted for the party that at least claimed that it favored smaller government.
If Republicans govern in accord with the mandate for smaller, less costly, less intrusive government, they should find a reservoir of public support. If, on the other hand, they fail to hear the voters' message — if they return to their old ways — they are apt to find those same voters delivering the mandate again — to somebody else.