There are two ways of thinking about a political mandate. One is programmatic, the other political.

The former requires a candidate to run on a specific program and make his or her candidacy about achieving specific aims. Novel idea, I know. George W. Bush comes to mind. He lost the popular vote in 2000 and won by a small percentage in his second race but nevertheless pushed ahead with No Child Left Behind, Social Security reform and comprehensive immigration reform (the latter two unsuccessfully) because he had made these major issues in his campaign.

Both because candidates run on fewer specifics and because the parties are more ideologically rigid, the idea of a mandate for this or that policy objective becomes harder to claim. In an election like 2016 when so many voters will choose Hillary Clinton because she is not Donald Trump, the best one might claim is a negative mandate — no tax cuts for the rich, no border wall, no disengagement from NATO, etc. A more generic mandate — a style of governance, a general approach to foreign policy, a list of priorities — is more attainable, although the devil is usually in the details when it comes to legislation.

The other kind of mandate is political. If a presidential candidate wins big, sweeps in dozens of lawmakers and other officials up and down the ticket and reclaims the majority in one or both houses, the president will be perceived as having a different sort of political mandate — political heft, influence and the ability to demand loyalty from his or her party. It’s also a warning shot to the losing side that the public is not with them, so they best tread softly. (President Obama famously refused to recognize his own “shellacking” in 2010, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.)

What does all that mean for Clinton if she wins comfortably or perhaps by a landslide? She arguably has run on three or four big ideas: American leadership in the world; working “together” with Republicans; immigration reform; and investment in human (e.g., training) and physical capital (e.g., infrastructure spending). Whether Republicans agree to play ball with her on those issues — or even touch immigration reform — depends in large part on the post-Trump civil war already breaking out on the right. It’s going to include a whole list of factors:

  • Does the GOP keep the House majority, and does House Speaker Paul Ryan keep his job?
  • Do GOP losses in the House and Senate give the most obstructionist elements a bigger say (because moderate members lost) in governing or refusing to govern?
  • Are Trump’s most visible backers (Sen. Jeff Sessions, Sen. Ted Cruz, the Freedom Caucus) chastened?
  • Do Republicans eyeing 2020 (Sen. Marco Rubio, Cruz, Sen. Tom Cotton) perceive it is in their self-interest to accomplish some things or simply to obstruct?
  • Are the causes Trump ran on (e.g., immigration restriction, supply-side economics) discredited in the near and/or long term?

We have opined that, left to their own devices, Ryan and Clinton could figure out significant areas of overlap on policy objectives (corporate tax reform, infrastructure repair, getting tough with Russia). They don’t, of course, operate in a vacuum. Moreover, we don’t even know if Ryan will be the speaker or even if Republicans will have the speakership (i.e., the majority), nor do we know how constrained Ryan will be in striking deals. Ironically, if the Democrats win both houses, the net result could be more obstruction as Republicans dig in to fight left-wing legislative items Nancy Pelosi/Clinton/Sen. Chuck Schumer are pushing. (This would duplicate the first couple of years of the Obama administration.)

In short, Clinton may lack a specific mandate for this or that legislative proposal, but provided she wins big and faces at least one house with a GOP majority, her slogan “stronger together” is going to be put to the test. For the country’s sake, we should hope she is more adept at dealmaking than Obama.