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CAMPAIGN 2000

One Vote Result Already In: Neither Will Get a Mandate

Projections: The close election means the next president won't persuade Congress that he's acting on the will of the people.

November 03, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Come Tuesday, Al Gore or George W. Bush will claim the White House. But, barring an unforeseen landslide, neither will claim much of a mandate.

Their race is too close, their difference on issues too blurred, the voters too focused on personalities for the election to offer a ringing endorsement of any of their major policy proposals, experts and analysts in both parties agree. Instead of a mandate, the election results more likely will be a muddle.

"We're going to look very hard for a message here, and we're not going to very successful in finding one," said Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which has done extensive polling throughout the campaign. "This is not an election about an awful lot."

Unlike Ronald Reagan, who won handily in 1980 by promising to cut taxes and boost defense, or Bill Clinton, who made the economy and health care his mantra in 1992, neither Bush nor Gore seems likely to win based on policy proposals. Rather, Tuesday's outcome seems destined to turn more on intangibles, such as likability, competence, truthfulness and experience.

As a result, whoever triumphs will be hard-pressed to translate victory into validation for his more ambitious initiatives--especially when faced with a Congress almost certain to be closely divided.

For a President Bush, that could mean scaling back his sweeping tax cut proposal, the centerpiece of his economic plan, to which most voters have never warmed.

For a President Gore, that could mean retreating from some of his more expansive notions for spending the federal budget surplus, which Republicans would probably resist.

Neither candidate is purposely deceiving voters with his extravagant promises. Both, however, may be overstating how much they can accomplish, especially if the election results are as close as predicted.

"If George W. Bush wins, what's the mandate?" asked Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University. "To continue to be a nice guy or to pursue his Social Security and tax cut proposals?"

As for the vice president, Wayne said, "I'm not sure which Al Gore people would be electing," given the Democrat's shifting policy emphasis, changing tactics and varied public personas.

A mandate is the capital a president draws upon in his dealings with Congress, growing from a perception that he embodies the will of the people. It is both amorphous and one of the president's most powerful weapons.

"When politicians claim a mandate, it suggests a presumption the president's proposals should be received favorably and enacted," said Cary Covington, a University of Iowa political science professor. "It's to give them an advantage in the consideration and enactment of their legislative agenda."

Hence the focus on the first 100 days of a new administration, when the election results are still fresh. But many experts say there is a tendency to overstate the message derived from most presidential elections.

For starters, people often cast a lesser-of-two-evils ballot, rather than voting to explicitly affirm a candidate or what he stands for. At the same time, most successful candidates run on more than one or two issues. "Who's to say which one voters liked?" Covington asked, or whether issues mattered at all? "Maybe voters liked one candidate's personality better or found him more trustworthy."

There have been elections that boiled down to fundamental choices and produced a distinct mandate. James Thurber of American University in Washington called these "yes-or-no elections." Historians cite Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1932 victory, which ushered in the New Deal, and Reagan's 1980 win, which put the brakes on big government.

In contrast, "this election is a matter of degree," Thurber said, "a matter of degree on tax cuts, a matter of degree on solving education and health care problems, a matter of degree on the role of the federal government. It's not a yes-or-no election on whether there's any role for the federal government."

Thurber and others suggest the 2000 presidential contest most resembles 1960, when Democrat John F. Kennedy squeaked past Republican Richard Nixon by 0.2% of the popular vote. Given his wafer-thin margin, Kennedy was circumscribed throughout his presidency; in the first 100 days, his only major accomplishment was a Republican-backed tax cut for business, something that was not even part of Kennedy's election platform.

In the same way, analysts suggest, neither Bush nor Gore is likely to achieve much in the first two years without bipartisan support in Congress.

"We'll have divided government regardless of who's in control," said Marshall Wittman, a political analyst with the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "The question is whether the president can be a legislative Houdini and make things happen.

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