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Should Nancy Pelosi rightfully be speaker of the House?

The GOP is claiming a mandate for its policy positions because it retained control of the House of Representatives. But Democrats actually won more votes than Republicans did for House seats.

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Why does any of this matter? Because, as the two parties get ready to sit down for Friday’s talks on the fiscal cliff – the automatic spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to hit at the year’s end – they are both claiming a “mandate” for their own policy preferences. 

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Liz Marlantes covers politics for the Monitor and is a regular contributor to the Monitor's political blog, DC Decoder.

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Former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan told ABC News this week that he believes President Obama absolutely does not have a mandate to raise taxes on the wealthy, “because [voters] also reelected the House Republicans.” Interestingly, though, Mr. Ryan also appeared to hedge a bit on what the electoral results really mean, when he added: “whether people intended or not, we've got divided government” [emphasis ours].

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went even further this week, telling conservative host Sean Hannity on his radio show: “It's very wrong to suggest that only the president has a mandate. The House Republicans also have a mandate, and it's a much more conservative mandate than the president's."

By contrast, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid believes there is a clear mandate for his side's desire to raise taxes on the richest Americans. Immediately after the election, he told reporters: “The mandate was – look at all the exit polls, look at all the polling, the vast majority of the American people, rich, poor, everybody agrees that the rich, richest of the rich, have to help a little bit.”

Now it’s true that, even if House seats had been allocated by popular vote – giving control of that body to the Democrats – it still would have been a fairly narrow divide overall. So there is good reason for Mr. Obama and the Democrats not to act too confident in the size of their mandate, or too inclined to overlook the political leanings of nearly half the country. In that sense, they'd do well to heed House Speaker John Boehner's careful comments in the wake of the election, that “if there was a mandate in this election, it was a mandate to work together.”

But it’s also true that Democrats may, in fact, have received more of a mandate than the electoral results in the House would indicate.

Along those lines, Ms. Pelosi actually made a (perhaps Freudian) slip in her press conference Wednesday announcing her intention to remain as the House Democratic leader: “I said yesterday, we did not have the majority but we have the gavel," she said. "Excuse me. We don’t have the gavel,” she then corrected herself, to laughter, adding: “We have something more important: we have unity.” 


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