By William Reinsch
Having watched presidential transitions dating back to Jimmy Carter, two things appear certain when the change is from one party to the other:
- The winners always declare they have a mandate for change.
- Everything the preceding administration did was bad and needs to be abolished or corrected.
These false assumptions lead inevitably to overreach and unnecessary mistakes.
At this point, it looks like President-elect Trump received 46.4% of the popular vote. That is the lowest total since 1992 when Bill Clinton got 43.01 when Ross Perot ran as an independent. It is also less than his opponent, who at this point has 48.1% of the vote, with the count continuing. In other words, Trump not only got a minority of the total vote, he received 2.3 million votes fewer votes than his opponent. That was also true in 2000. This is not a mandate by anybody’s definition, although it will surely be claimed as one by the Republicans (nor is it an argument against the Electoral College — we throw out 200-year-old institutions at our peril).
In fact, American presidential elections are generally pretty close in terms of the popular vote. Nobody since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 has exceeded 60%. Even Reagan peaked at just under 59% in 1984. In 1980 he got 50.75% of the popular vote. His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, got 50.08%. President Obama peaked at 52.86% in 2008. These are not landslide margins, and they reflect the fact that our country is closely divided and that most Americans are in the center — either slightly left or slightly right.
These are not mandate numbers, and it is particularly clear this year that the incoming president does not have one, given that more people voted for his opponent than they did for him. That has not stopped Republican activists, both from the Trump wing or one of the other (right) wings of the Republican Party from claiming a mandate and announcing big changes that will occur in the first 100 or 200 days, many of which involve rolling back Obama administration policies or regulations.
This is not new, and it is not partisan. We saw it in 2008, in 2000 when it was even more absurd than it is now, in 1992, in 1980, and in 1976. While a certain amount of chest-thumping should be expected from the winners (accompanied by a lot of soul-searching by the losers), policy overreach is a real danger. If you think you have a mandate, then you think the public overwhelmingly supports your entire agenda and will support your efforts to implement it, however aggressive they might be. We used to refer to this as the “arrogance of power,” a term that seems to have fallen out of fashion lately, but I suspect we will be hearing more often in the next year or two.
What might we see this year? Judging from the comments made so far — not necessarily by the president-elect himself but by people who purport to speak for him — tax cuts, including for the rich, rolling back clean air regulations, allowing energy drilling in previously protected areas, mass deportations, a large tariff on China, or Mexico, or both, pulling out of the UNFCCC climate accord, rolling back net neutrality regulations, reversing our policy on Cuba, and the list goes on.
While there are no doubt lots of Trump voters who think those are good things, I doubt you can find a majority in the country in favor of any of them; yet most of them will be attempted. When that happens, it will become a test of party discipline for the Republicans. The Democrats, for the most part, will oppose these changes, and moderate Republicans or those from districts that would be adversely affected will be under a lot of pressure to do so as well. Some will agree, and some proposals will fail, leading to a lot of intra-party recrimination and inter-party rancor. The sad thing is that much of this could be avoided if the administration recognizes the limits of its mandate and governs from the center rather than an extreme. Unfortunately, it appears that this is something that has to be learned anew by experience every four or eight years, so we are all in for a rocky ride — at least for a while.
Also part of the arrogance of power complex is disdain for conflicts of interest. One of the president-elect’s post-election tweets was, “Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world. Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!” First, saying it is well known and saying people are okay with it are two very different things. Second, it is a striking example of the overreach that this column has been about — the idea that I can do whatever I want because I won the election. Our country doesn’t work that way, and if that attitude is sustained, eventually even Trump’s most ardent supporters will get tired of it. Recent indications are that he now appears to understand that and is prepared to do something about it. What he decides to do will send an important signal not only about ethics but about whether he recognizes the limitations and responsibilities our system imposes on the winners. We’ll find out on December 15. Stay tuned.
William Reinsch is a Distinguished Fellow with the Stimson Center, where he works principally with the Center’s Trade21 initiative.