'Elections have consequences': Does Obama regret saying that now?

What do politicians mean when they say 'elections have consequences'? Often, they're saying that their party just won an election and they want their way – but the pronouncement can come back to bite.

Jason Reed/Reuters/File
President-elect Barack Obama was pretty happy that elections had consequences on Nov. 4, 2008. This year, not so much.

“Elections have consequences.” It’s the political way for winners to tell losers: “Tough luck, you lost. Get over it.”

President Obama infamously espoused this view shortly after his 2009 inauguration, during a meeting with congressional Republicans about his economic proposals. Mr. Obama was later quoted as telling GOP leaders that “elections have consequences,” and, in case there was any doubt, “I won.”

Now, of course, the expression has come back to haunt the president. Since the Democratic Party’s drubbing at the polls earlier this month, politicians and pundits are repeatedly invoking the phrase as a justification for a more conservative agenda.

Columnist Debra Saunders used it in decrying Obama’s decision this week to issue a sweeping executive order on immigration. “The latest Gallup poll shows that a modest 36 percent of voters have a favorable view of the Democratic Party. Republicans enjoy higher numbers – 42 percent – for the first time since 2011,” Ms. Saunders wrote recently. “It's time to back off. As Obama himself famously said, ‘Elections have consequences.’’’

CNBC’s Matt Cuddy also brought it out shortly before the recent failed post-election Senate vote on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline: “After six years of discussion, the Keystone pipeline is finally going to get an up or down vote on the U.S. Senate floor, confirming the adage, elections have consequences. What led to this change? Politics.” Along those same lines, Sen. John Hoeven (R) of North Dakota, a leading Keystone supporter, said in a statement: “I have been working for years to pass this legislation, and now the Democratic caucus seems ready to move on it. Elections have consequences.”

Of course, being on the losing end of an election often changes the views among politicians about how determinative elections should be. During the four-year tenure of Nancy Pelosi as the first House speaker, her Democrats didn’t seem particularly interested in taking into account the viewpoints of minority Republicans. At one point in early 2009, as the $787 billion economic stimulus bill ping-ponged between both Democratic-controlled chambers, Pelosi said: “Yes, we wrote the bill. Yes, we won the election.”

But after House Democrats lost their majority in the 2010 midterms, Pelosi seemed to take a different view. In April 2011, after a few months back in the minority, she told a Tufts University audience that elections “shouldn’t matter as much as they do.”

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Decoder Voices.

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