On Election Day voters were given the choice between two totally divergent and incompatible political philosophies, and they seemingly voted for both. President Barack Obama had a clear win in the popular vote and nearly ran the board in the battleground states, piling up virtual landslide in the Electoral College with more than 60 percent of the total electors. His party’s victories in U.S. Senate races were even more impressive: Of the 33 Senate seats contested this week, Democrats—or Independents who will caucus with them—won 25 seats, or nearly 76 percent.
Even before the polling places opened on Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) gave an alternative interpretation of what he appeared to recognize was not going to be a good day for his party. “Listen, our majority is going to get re-elected. We’ll have as much of a mandate as he [President Obama] will … to not raise taxes,” he told Politico.
He seemed to soften that stance the day after the election or, more accurately, change the spin on that stance in a press conference Wednesday:
We’re willing to accept new revenue, under the right conditions. Does the increased revenue come from government taking a larger share of what the American people earn through higher tax rates? Or does it come as the byproduct of a growing economy, energized by a simpler, cleaner, fairer tax code, with fewer loopholes, and lower rates for all?
So, as a token of bipartisanship, Speaker Boehner is willing to accept higher revenues if they come from lower tax rates. In other words, we’re back to another round of supply-side magic.
How did we end up on Tuesday night electing a president who campaigned on blocking the extension of tax cuts for households with incomes of more than $250,000 a year? How did we end up voting in a large majority of Senate candidates who, for the most part, took that same position on taxes? And, alongisde all of that, how did we end up retaining a Republican majority in the House of Representatives that is vociferously committed to opposing all tax rate increases, specifically increases on high-income households?
These are important questions, and how we answer them may help us to better understand what the electorate said on Tuesday, as well as who has a mandate to move forward on tax policy and who does not. Once that becomes clearer, it will provide a context for reasonable people to judge where the middle ground is and who is or is not doing their share to help the nation resolve this dispute and move the country forward.
The first point that Speaker Boehner should acknowledge is that there is something quite strange in how voter preferences on a state-by-state basis translate into representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. In Boehner’s own state—Ohio—the president carried the popular vote by 2 percentage points, while Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown was re-elected by a comfortable 5 percentage points. Yet Ohio elected Republicans to 12 of the state’s 16 seats in the House of Representatives.
A similar situation exists with respect to Virginia, where the president won by 3 percentage points; the Senate candidate, Democrat Tim Kaine, won by 4 percentage points; and yet the state filled eight of its 11 seats in the House of Representatives with Republicans.
How is this possible? Take a look at Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, and you will start to get the picture. The district starts just north of Eden, North Carolina, and runs to within a mile of the West Virginia border just east of Berryville, Virginia. It’s about a 300-mile, five-hour drive from one corner of the district to the other. At its widest point, near its base on the North Carolina border, the district is about 150 miles across. Near the top it is at one point less than 10 miles wide. Virginia’s 3.6 million voters are distributed among its 11 congressional districts in a painstakingly tortured manner to ensure exactly the kind of results we saw in this election.
Virginia and Ohio are not unlike a lot of states. Wisconsin saw a 7-percent margin for President Obama translate into only three of its eight House seats. Even in many of the states the president lost, the results for Democrats in House races were far worse than the statewide vote would appear to justify. In Indiana, for instance, Obama lost 54 percent to 44 percent, while his party’s Senate candidate—Joe Donnelly—won by 6 percentage points. But out of nine House seats, Democrats only won one seat.
It is possible that when all the votes are tallied, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives may have gotten more votes in this election than Republican candidates, even though they won only 46 percent of the seats.
Speaker Boehner should acknowledge that the drawing of lines on state maps, rather than persuading voters on policy grounds, was a big part of the disparate and incongruous results of this election. A distinction needs to be made between a mandate and a gerrymander.
But it wasn’t only the manipulation of congressional district boundaries. There were obviously other factors at play in the just-contested House races. One possibility is that the fat wallets of the much-vaunted super PACs may have not have had much impact on the higher-profile presidential and Senate contests—where the airways were saturated with attacks and appeals from both sides—and may have been far more important in down-ballot contests such as House races.
There was also so much going on in this election that many voters possibly could simply not keep track of it all. House races and the policies and conduct of the current majority in the House stayed well below the radar in most parts of the country.
But what if voters had paid more attention to the issues raised in House races? Would the Boehner position on tax rates have helped House Republicans in cementing their majority, or would it have placed that majority at greater risk? The exit polls conducted on November 6 give a pretty clear answer to that question: Nationally, 60 percent of voters said that “income tax rates” should increase either on income above $250,000 or for everyone, while only 35 percent opposed any increase. In Virginia, where Democrats will hold only three of 11 House seats in the next Congress, the results were even more lopsided, with 63 percent favoring some form of tax-rate increase and only 34 percent opposing such an increase. Clearly a large number of the 235 Republicans who will serve in the 113th Congress will do so despite—rather than because of—their position on tax rates.
There is one other factor here that should be weighed as we watch whether this lame duck session of Congress can do what is necessary to avoid financial calamity. Whatever Speaker Boehner’s mandate amounts to in policy terms, it’s certainly not equal to the mandate given to the president. Under the Constitution, Congress and the Executive are co-equal branches of government. But the House of Representatives is only half of Congress: If the Senate and the House disagree on policy, there will have to be some give and take. (It should be noted that the Senate Democrats unquestionably have a significantly stronger mandate, having won 76 percent of all open seats and gaining four more, while House Republicans won only 54 percent of open seats having lost approximately seven.) Once a compromise between the two is reached, the common position of those two bodies is co-equal to that of the president.
The bottom line: The Constitution guarantees the House of Representatives about a quarter of the say in determining the final policy—not half, as some would like you to believe.
One of the biggest and most frequent mistakes made in American politics is misinterpreting one’s electoral mandate. House Republicans did that in 2011 with the debt-limit legislation, and they were fortunate to have lived in a political environment this year so steeped in other controversies that their misstep was largely overlooked. The eyes of the country, however, are squarely fixed upon them now, and they should not count on being as lucky if they push the country over the fiscal cliff to protect a tax policy that is clearly not favored by voters.
Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.