There’s no mandate to remake America
Does President Joe Biden have a mandate to rebuild the United States? To remake American capitalism? To reshape the role of government? The president’s Democratic supporters say yes. But the results of the election that brought Biden to office say no.
Biden advocates argue that he can bring change to America in the style of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson during the Great Society. “Will Joe Biden take his place alongside FDR and LBJ?” asks a news analysis on CNN.com. Authors Stephen Collinson and Caitlin
Hu seem optimistic — if Biden can pass his massive “infrastructure” bill, they write, he “will lay claim to a spot in the Democratic pantheon alongside Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson who used vast government power to reorient the economy and benefit the poor with their New Deal and Great Society programs.”
“Can Biden Join FDR and LBJ in the Democratic Party’s Pantheon?” asks National Public Radio. “Biden, Like FDR and LBJ, Sees Opportunity in a Moment of Crisis,” says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “Biden is planning for a Great Society 2.0,” writes Washington Post columnist James Hohmann.
It’s all wishful thinking. Yes, like FDR and LBJ, Biden has been elected president of the United States. But the voters have given Biden nowhere near the power they gave Roosevelt and Johnson. When voters want presidents to do big things, they give them big victories, both in their own elections and those in Congress.
Biden won the presidency with 306 electoral votes to Donald Trump’s 232. Biden won the popular vote by 7 million votes, but as has often been noted, Biden’s Electoral College victory rested on a total of 43,809 votes in Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin.
Compare that to Roosevelt’s victories. In 1932, Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover by an electoral total of 472 to 59. (At that time, 266 votes were needed for victory.) In 1936, Roosevelt was reelected, over Republican Alf Landon, by an electoral vote of 523 to 8. (Yes, Landon got all of eight electoral votes, by winning Vermont and Maine.) Johnson was elected in 1964, over Republican Barry Goldwater, by an electoral vote of 486 to 52.
Then there were FDR’s and LBJ’s congressional majorities. They were huge. In 1932, the year of Roosevelt’s election, Democrats won 313 seats in the House. In 1934, they won 322. In 1936, the year of Roosevelt’s reelection, they won 334. That year, Republicans won just 88 House seats. In the Senate, in 1932, Democrats controlled 59 seats, out of a total 96 seats. (This was before Alaska and Hawaii became states.) In 1934, Democrats had 69 seats, and in 1936 they had 76 seats. Republicans controlled just 16 seats in the Senate.
In 1964, the year of Johnson’s election, Democrats won 295 seats in the House. They controlled 68 seats in the Senate.
Now compare those commanding majorities to the situation today. Democrats control the House by the barest of majorities, with just 218 seats. In the Senate, Democrats have no majority at all, with the body tied 50-50. Their ability to control the Senate rests with a Democratic vice president, who can break tie votes.
And that is supposed to produce the next FDR or LBJ? American politics just doesn’t work that way.
Back in 1993, when then-first lady Hillary Clinton was pushing Congress to pass a universal health care bill, Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned her that she needed big majorities for something so momentous and far-reaching. Landmark bills don’t squeak through Congress with a single-vote majority, Moynihan reportedly told Clinton. “They pass 70-to-30, or they fail.”
Back then, Moynihan’s Democratic Senate colleague Joe Biden would likely have agreed. But today’s Biden Democrats believe the big-majority standard longer applies. Why not remake the United States on the strength of a vote or two in the House? Why not remake the U.S. on a 50-50 tie in the Senate, broken by the vice president?
Maybe Democrats can pull it off. But maybe the old rules — and common sense — still apply.