In recent years, whenever Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was questioned about some extraordinary move he and Republicans were taking, such as rushing Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation through the process fast enough to create a sonic boom, his usual reply was to smirk and say, “Elections have consequences.” We won, in other words, so we can exercise our power in any way we see fit.
This is what we have come to expect not just from McConnell but also from all Republicans, regardless of the circumstances of their victory. But when it’s Democrats’ turn, we expect them to be tentative and apologetic about using their power, always worried about whether a sternly worded editorial will chastise them for not incorporating enough Republican ideas into their plans.
So let’s take stock of just where Biden and the Democrats stand.
As of this writing, Biden has tallied 4.4 million more votes than President Trump, a number that will keep growing as more results come in. By the time the counting is over, he will likely have bested Trump by 6 million votes or more.
Given the current state of party polarization, that is a positively overwhelming victory; the days when Ronald Reagan could win reelection by 18 points or Lyndon Johnson could win by 23 points are long behind us.
Let’s also not forget that Biden won this emphatic victory despite the extraordinary voter suppression effort that Republicans have assembled in recent years and that accelerated in the past few months as they tried madly to keep as many Democrats from voting as possible. Voter purges, closing of polling places, restrictions on early voting, ID laws, the attack on the Postal Service — they even went after drop boxes, as though allowing people to safely and conveniently drop off ballots was some kind of anti-Trump conspiracy.
Yet despite all the hurdles Republicans put in front of people who were more likely to vote Democratic, Biden still beat Trump soundly.
Furthermore, Democrats control the House and, if they win both seats in the Georgia runoffs, will control the Senate as well. Even though the upper chamber would be divided 50-50, the Democrats there would represent 41 million more Americans than the Republicans do, as Ian Millhiser noted.
It’s not just that Democrats have won more elections (including the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential contests) and represent more people. Their policy agenda — the substance of any mandate — is overwhelmingly popular as well.
In fact, it’s hard to find a controversial issue on which the Democratic position doesn’t enjoy the support of a majority of the public, sometimes an overwhelming majority. A $15-an-hour minimum wage, universal background checks for gun purchases, strong action on climate change, protecting reproductive rights, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and legal status for “dreamers,” higher taxes for the wealthy and corporations, a public health insurance option — all are hugely popular.
You know who understands that perfectly well? Republicans.
Which is why the campaigns they run are so often about things like who loves America more or which candidate is “weak” and which one is “strong.” But more importantly, they know that if you act like you have a mandate, then you do.
You might recall that when Trump took office in 2017 despite losing the popular vote by 3 million votes, neither he nor any other Republican took it as a reason to trim his sails in any way. They did not say, “We shouldn’t go too far in cutting taxes for the wealthy or gutting environmental regulations or restricting reproductive rights — this is a closely divided country, and we should try to govern in a cooperative way.”
Quite the contrary, in fact; it’s hard to recall a modern president more contemptuous not just of the opposition party but also of the majority of Americans who didn’t support him.
Nor was this anything new. Like Trump, George W. Bush took office after losing the popular vote, and he didn’t moderate his agenda either (even if he was better-mannered). What they understood is that mandates are, in the end, a kind of collective fiction. They exist only to the extent we decide they do.
On Friday, before news organizations declared him the victor, Biden said that the voters had “given us a mandate for action on covid, the economy, climate change, systemic racism. They made it clear they want the country to come together, not continue to pull apart.” Those two ideas are in tension, because acting on the mandate he received will not bring the country together.
It will make Republicans angry. They will say that they are the victims of oppression and tyranny, that when a duly elected Democrat enacts his agenda it is unfair and illegitimate. They will do everything in their power not only to make Biden fail but also to exacerbate the resentment, anger and division that they see as their path back to power.
There is not a single thing Biden can do to change that. What he can do, however, is act as though his mandate is well-earned and of the highest urgency. He can do what he promised, undeterred by Republican whining. If he does that, the public will get what it voted for. And isn’t that the point of having an election?