Come next Jan. 20, with President Bush’s retirement, Bob Dole will become the most important Republican elected official in Washington. Fresh from reelection in Kansas to the Senate seat he has held since 1968, and certain to be chosen again by his party colleagues as minority leader, Dole has already served notice that he intends to push a Republican congressional agenda, whatever President-elect Bill Clinton’s legislative priorities may prove to be.
Nothing surprising here; the first duty of the opposition, as the political adage has it, is to oppose, and Dole takes joy in a good partisan scrap. But Dole’s rationale for the tough contrarian line he is already embracing ought to cause some eyebrows to rise. Clinton, he says, cannot claim a mandate--and so, implicitly, he cannot claim broad popular backing for the legislation he will ask Congress to enact--because he did not win a majority of the popular votes cast Nov. 3. It’s true, he did not. But to try to argue from this fact that, as a result, Clinton is or ought to be seen as politically weakened is bad reasoning, historically as well as politically.
The Constitution, of course, is silent on the subject of the popular vote, just as it is silent on the existence of political parties. What the Constitution does say is that Presidents are to be chosen by electors, the number in each state being equal to that state’s U.S. senators and representatives. Clinton got--or will get, when the Electoral College meets in December--370 of the 538 votes to be cast. That’s 68.7%, not in the same league as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 98% in 1936 or Ronald Reagan’s 97.5% in 1984, but still impressive.
Clinton, with fewer than half of the popular votes in a three-way race, finds himself in crowded company. With 43% of the vote, he will be our 16th minority President out of 42 elected. Others have included Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Woodrow Wilson in both 1912 and 1916, Harry S. Truman in 1948, John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Richard M. Nixon in 1968. But Clinton’s electoral vote percentage exceeds all but one of those; Wilson, running in a three-way contest in 1912, got 81.9% of the electoral ballots. More recently Truman, Kennedy and Nixon (in 1968) all had electoral vote percentages below Clinton’s.
The point of reviewing the numbers is to underscore that the President, after being confirmed as the electoral vote winner and inaugurated, is in fact the President. His popular vote total is irrelevant to either his political legitimacy or his potential for legislative effectiveness. Some Presidents elected by an overwhelming popular vote have in fairly short order come to grief, others--see the list above--have achieved greatness with only a popular plurality behind them. Bob Dole has every right to lead a vigorous opposition. But not, please, on the specious grounds that Bill Clinton lacks any claim to a mandate.