Election 2020

'Don't Declare a Mandate. Because You Don't Have One.'

And other free advice to the next president of these United States.


It probably won't happen today, but eventually we'll know the identity of the next president of the United States. Here's some free advice to the winner.

Don't declare a mandate. Because you don't have one. However the popular and electoral votes shake out, don't let it go to your head. In 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular vote by millions and won the electoral vote by a 306-to-232 margin, good only for 46th out of 58 presidential elections. Trump's average approval rating (41 percent, according to Gallup) is fully a dozen points below the historical average. If he somehow manages to win a second term, he will do so by again eking out a slim victory, probably under 50 percent of the popular vote.

If Joe Biden wins, he should take seriously the fact that he is nobody's favorite. Over the summer, polls showed that 56 percent of Biden supporters agreed they were voting for him "because he is not Trump." The next closest reasons straggled in at 19 percent (leadership/performance) and 13 percent (personality/temperament), respectively. These are not numbers that should cause anybody to start acting like they have the unconditional love of their own families, much less the country at large.

Build consensus rather than resentment. Despite barely squeaking into office, President Trump repeatedly claimed he'd won in a "landslide" and governed as if he had. The main result? Those sad approval ratings for himself and electoral sharting for his party. In 2018, the Republicans got curb-stomped in the midterm elections, losing 41 seats and control of the House; there's a 75 percent chance they will give back control of the Senate this time around. Back in 2008, Barack Obama won in an actual landslide, becoming "the first president-elect in 32 years to receive a Congress under the firm control of his party." The president and Democrats muscled through an ambitious, extremely ideological legislative wish list, including a massive stimulus bill, health-care reform, and Dodd-Frank. They lost the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and the White House in 2016.

Stanford political scientist Morris P. Fiorina told me last week (podcast here) that we've been in a historically rare, prolonged period of "electoral chaos" in which control of various parts of the federal government keeps flipping from one party to another. The reason, he says, is because the two parties have sorted almost completely into conservative and liberal parties that are far more extreme and less representative of the persistent plurality of Americans who identify as politically independent (38 percent in the most recent Gallup poll, compared to 31 percent who say they are Democrats and 29 percent who say they are Republican). The minute they get into power, observes Fiorina, they overreach, alienate voters, and lose upcoming elections. It's well past time to break that cycle.

Win nationally, let states and cities govern locally. In a country in which COVID-19 is the overriding issue of the day and political polarization is already at a fever pitch, it's scant comfort to insist that things aren't as bad as they were in the run-up to the Civil War. You don't have to buy the latest sob story du jour about a son disowning his mother over the election to acknowledge that kumbaya spirit is as tough to find as a roll of toilet paper was in mid-March. In a rare show of unity, both Biden and Trump are willing to mislead us about the coronavirus even as their basic plans to combat it have "much in common."

The best way to deal with COVID-19 is to devolve power and resources to state and municipal governments who can make decisions based on local knowledge. Colorado, for instance, has generally gotten good marks for balancing the need to protect the vulnerable while opening up things. Amid rising case loads, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis recently told The Denver Post's Alex Burness "that he prefers regional COVID restrictions over a statewide shutdown," and that "it wouldn't shock me if there were stronger restrictions put in in some areas with the highest spread of the virus."

That sort of flexible, on-the-ground approach should be the order of the day not simply for COVID-19 but for almost all issues. Under the best of circumstances, America is vast and contains multitudes who have very different needs and visions of the good life, and who resent being told what to do by relative strangers. And these are not the best of circumstances.

Ditch the royal "we" and ask for the country's permission. For the entire 21st century, national politics has been a dumpster fire, largely because the two parties who run the federal government in alternating elections increasingly don't represent us even as they cram their agendas down our throats along stark party lines. When Obama took office in 2009, he notoriously declared to then-House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R–Va.), "Look at the polls. The polls are pretty good for me right now….Elections have consequences and Eric, I won." That sort of smugness didn't work out so well for Obama, whose party quickly lost power and whose legacy included a record-slow economic recovery, expensive and partial health-care "reform" that barely survived his tenure, historic losses for Democrats at all levels of government, and a host of other failures.

In a country that is fighting over its mythological birth year and riven with political violence, economic meltdown, pandemic panic, and record levels of anxiety and depression, the last thing we need is a figurative grandfather speaking for us and at us. We need someone who will build consensus from the ground up rather than shout a false version of it from the top down. Doing so will indeed limit your ability to force things through regardless of popular opinion, but it will be better for the country you say you care about so much.