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Should losing a presidential election mean giving up your agenda?

- September 30, 2013

(Joe Raedle - Getty Images)

(Joe Raedle – Getty Images)

In a post yesterday, I talked about the political science research on policy mandates. In short, voters tend not to choose candidates based on policy, so the mere fact that a candidate wins an election cannot be interpreted as an endorsement of that candidate’s policy views.  In that post I quoted something Jonathan Chait had written as suggesting a policy mandate for the Democrats:

Democrats think Obama’s victory in 2012 settled issues like health-care reform.  Jonathan Chait sums up this view when describing congressional Republicans’ proposed conditions for raising the debt ceiling:
“The fact that a major party could even propose anything like this is a display of astonishing contempt for democratic norms. Republicans ran on this plan and lost by 5 million votes.”

Two things led me to interpret Chait in this way.  One is that after 2008, while Chait agreed that elections do not convey broad policy mandates, he argued that the Democrats were about to “psych themselves out” of a mandate to pursue health-care reform — a mandate grounded in the public’s “undiluted liberalism” on this issue.  (My own earlier take on the mandate conveyed by 2008 was a bit more circumspect.) So it seemed like Chait believed elections could convey mandates.  Second, when Chait invoked the election’s outcome (“5 million votes”) to buttress his point about democratic norms, I read him as believing that this election conveyed some sort of mandate, or at least that the norm was grounded in popular will.
Chait objected to this characterization, and you can read our exchange on Twitter here.  Chait says that his argument in that post, which he restates here, is simply that the election constituted no mandate for the GOP. We subsequently agreed that the election was, in my words, “no policy mandate for either party.”  As such, my characterization was not a correct interpretation of Chait’s actual view, and I apologize to him.  Chait also instructed me to “please inform your readers” on this point.  So consider yourself informed!
Let’s try to turn this into something more constructive.  What exactly is this “democratic norm” that Chait refers to, and if it doesn’t rest in some reading of the will of the voters, where does it come from?  Chait suggested it’s an “interesting question.”  I’ll try to engage it, and I’ll do so by saying that there is no such norm at all.
When a candidate — and, to some extent therefore, a party — loses a presidential election, the only norm they should obey is not to grab guns and shoot the winners.  That’s what makes democracy work: the consent of the losers.  (Here’s a political science book on that very subject.)  Beyond that, I don’t have strong views on what the losing party is morally obligated to do.
In terms of what parties actually do do, I think they usually continue to advocate for the agenda they were pushing when they lost the election.  Parties mostly push the agenda they sincerely believe is “good policy” (by whatever criterion) and they often keep on pushing through victories and defeats.  The Democrats did not, for example, stop pushing health-care reform after Bill Clinton’s plan was defeated or after George W. Bush won two presidential elections.  As David Karol noted here the other day, health-care reform was a long-standing party priority.  The party continued to push it and, when they had the votes, they passed an important piece of legislation.  Moreover, this is exactly what parties should do, if they are convinced that (a) their agenda makes for good policy and (b) agree with Chait and me that election outcomes do not send clear signals about voters’ policy views.
Now, you can disagree with a party’s agenda on substantive grounds (that is, it’s wrong).  You can say that a party’s agenda is strategically misguided (that is, it costs them votes).  But I’m not sure you can say that there is any moral imperative for the losing party to jettison its agenda, or that it is astonishingly contemptuous of democracy for the losing party to continue to promote the same agenda.  The only way such behavior reflects contempt for democracy is if you think that an election outcome conveys voters’ endorsement of the winner’s policy agenda or rejection of the loser’s.  Chait doesn’t seem to think that, so I’m curious where he thinks this norm originates.