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Conor Williams
Washington, DC

Conor Williams

I’m working on a PhD in Government at Georgetown, so I’m full of ideals, but my optimism is tempered by experience.

Misreading the mandate

Editor's note: For this final challenge, we asked the contestants to craft an op-ed column that showcases their writing style, smarts and unique point of view.

American voters are mysterious creatures. Often dismissed for their indifference, ignorance and shortsightedness, they are famously difficult to understand (though this hasn't stopped many an expert from trying).

After each election, analysts pore over the results in search of a unified message. Obviously "America Rejects the President" and "A Win for Change" make better headlines than "Diverse Constituencies Across the Country Continue to Support Distinct Candidates for Different Reasons." Of course, what's sexy isn't always true, even if it sells.

Electoral messages are always murky. If democratic politics are a game of musical chairs, then campaigns are the moments when the music stops. Self-interest and distortion dominate (even more than usual), hiding even the clearest mandates beneath a sea of rhetoric. Politicians dive for seats, toppling honesty and decency on their way. Without the benefit of hindsight, it is nearly impossible to uncover a straightforward message in these scrambles. Our public debates occur only in the intervening periods. Political leaders get up from their chairs to reposition and contribute to the tunes of American public discourse.

Two years on, the message of the 2008 elections is becoming intelligible. Many in the Obama administration believed that voters had given them a mandate for progressive policies. They accordingly emphasized health-care reform instead of changes to economic policy (or so it seemed to the public), which has hamstrung them since. Progressive Americans cheered the choice - until the compromises started arriving. Deals with the pharmaceutical lobby? For shame! Within a few weeks, the president appeared to transform from liberal lion to corporate stooge. Soon he seemed to be backing down on financial regulatory reform, climate change, the base at Guantanamo and everything else. The clamor on the left grew louder: What happened to our audacious hopes?

Other members of the Democrats' 2008 electoral coalition were disappointed for different reasons. These were independents frustrated with the Bush administration's widespread governing incompetence. They were seeking change - but primarily a change back to intelligent, functioning government (and not necessarily a more progressive one). With an economy teetering on the brink between recovery and further recession, they expected effective federal responses that never fully arrived. These voters also wanted substantial improvements in the way Washington conducts business. Now they are tired of waiting for change to believe in.

Ultimately, there was no single message in the 2008 elections. Neither a radically progressive agenda nor a moderate set of compromises would have satisfied the diverse crowd of voters who backed Barack Obama. Some supporters were bound to be disappointed.

Of course, no coalition is ever perfectly harmonious, and the compromises required for democratic governing usually leave some supporters dissatisfied. In this case, however, the Democrats egregiously misread their mandate. In Tuesday's elections, many progressives will stay home and many independents will abandon the Democrats entirely. This will mean a return to power for Republicans, who are largely committed to preventing public institutions from addressing the nation's problems. This means that it's their turn to misread their mandate. When Americans go to the polls (or don't) Tuesday, are they univocally demanding the Republican Party's brand of reduced government? Are they eager to lose their health coverage because of preexisting conditions? Are they hoping for drastic tax reductions for the wealthy and even more growth in budget deficits? Perhaps most pressing: Do Americans want continued Republican obstructionism in Congress?

Polls show precisely the opposite. Though voters are frustrated with the government, most still expect it to address the serious problems facing the United States. Very few Americans want the government to sit idly by while the country suffers. A Washington Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll last month showed that 49 percent of American adults would rather have more government services and higher taxes, while 47 percent would prefer fewer services and lower taxes. The poll also showed that majorities of Americans still want the federal government to be more involved in reforming health care and education. How skeptical are Americans about government's effectiveness after all?

While reducing government's size is a priority for some voters, this is only one strain in the national chorus. Once again, the nation won't be speaking with one voice, so the message will be mixed. Democrats still stand to lose ground Tuesday, but this is no ringing endorsement of a conservative fiscal agenda. If the economy doesn't improve, conservatives' hands-off approach to federal policy won't play well for long. Don't forget, the music starts again on Wednesday.

Read more by Conor Williams. And then cast your vote to determine who wins the title of America's Next Great Pundit.

By Conor Williams  |  November 1, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Old-school op-eds
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I haven't followed the contest as closely as I did last year and didn't know this was the final challenge. I was under the impression
that the final two would battle it out.

I wish it had not been done during the election period, and I get the impression that possibly the judges wished the same thing. It seems that the contest got lost in the shuffle of all the political opining elsewhere.

Congratulations to Conor and all of the contestants. As a progressive, you will be speaking for me in the weeks and months to come. The barbarians are at the gate. You'll know what to do. I believe this.

MSJS, Chucky-el, it has been fun to commiserate with you again this year.

GMH26 seems to think the contest is only about the contestants, or maybe about the Facebook crowd that votes for them. That's the old punditry model, where the pundit says his/her piece and the rest of us dutifully listen and read. But nowadays a pundit must deal with a commenting public. Whatever a pundit says can and will be challenged, some of it fairly, and much of it not. If GM thinks the commentary here was rough, I suggest he check out some of the comments found following a Eugene Robinson column. I certainly concur that putting your writing and views out in front of the public is no picnic. As I recall some of us in the "peanut gallery" did enter the contest last year. As I stated elsewhere, I for one couldn't have entered the contest this year in any case because I don't belong to Facebook or Twitter, and that now is a requirement. It's the way the world has changed since I began writing several decades ago. And GM clearly missed the lengthy discussion some of us had last year upon learning we had entered a popularity contest that had little to do with the craft of writing. It is what it is.

One thing never changes. Certain people are wired toward the verbal, not just what is said, but how, and how could it be said better, or in fewer words, or with more impact...or....? Pundits may argue with these picky people, but in the end those irritating folks are called editors, and they get the last word. The pundit gets the byline.

I am reminded of the Bible advice to the effect that it is a waste of time and talent for a hand to try to be a foot. And vice versa. Many kinds of people are needed to keep the world running. As for criticism, whence the priceless pearl without that bit of sand under the shell?

Posted by: martymar123 | November 2, 2010 5:02 PM
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GMH26, your point is duly noted.

Personally, I have no interest in entering a popularity contest where success is based on the size of one's social network. Nor am I interested in bolstering WaPo's fortunes to the tune of $250 per column.

As to our real names, several commenters use them. I notice you don't though.

When I thanked the commenters I meant it. And I include you. I genuinely enjoy the give and take here.

Posted by: MsJS | November 2, 2010 12:24 PM
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For a final word (I can't believe I'm writing this), check out Michael Gerson's column today! It sounds like he checked in with Conor first.

Posted by: dade52 | November 2, 2010 12:22 PM
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While the "peanut gallery" (here's looking at you MSJS, MartyMar, et al.) are patting themselves on the backs and calling for their inclusion in next year's contest- I'd personally like to applaud the pundits.

It's pretty easy to anonymously comment on something someone else has written, while the pundits have put their names, opinions and faces to their work.

So, I encourage all of the 'peanut gallery' to enter your (real)names in next year- and try a hand at putting original, fully completed, polished, well written piece up on the web for all of us to comment on. And to do it for three weeks. Yes, you may be funny, but you're work has hardly warranted inclusion in the Washington Post Op-Ed columns. Time to put your money where your mouth is.

Posted by: GMH26 | November 2, 2010 11:50 AM
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Well done Conor. It's amazing how much time all three of the candidates have spent on this competition. That is impressive.

It takes a lot of courage to repeatedly post one's onymous thoughts on the web. The ANonymous commenter crowd has it easy and I gather, from the admittedly "acerbic" contributions, that they have forgotten the adage: "Put yourself in his/her shoes". Of course, several of these people would probably dismiss that as yet another platitude.

Again, great work everyone, especially CW.

Posted by: jhones | November 2, 2010 11:38 AM
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I thank MartyMar and Chucky-El for their kind words. FYI, we were amongst the commenter crew last year.

Fact is, there have been many keenly worded comments throughout the contest. Some I agreed with, some I didn't. But I think about them afterwards. When MrJS asks me over dinner how the contest is going, the comments are what spring to mind.

Thank you all.

Posted by: MsJS | November 2, 2010 9:51 AM
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"If you require a first paragraph that makes you wet your pants, then Conor might not be your pundit."

Why? Conor is still developing as a writer, and can surely learn to write a better first paragraph, one that would keep his reader's attention.

My problem with all of these op eds is that I am just thoroughly sick of politics. And there are so many political op eds out there right now that the competition for readers' attention is fierce. If you don't have something original to say, and yes, get my attention early in the piece, I simply don't have the patience to bother.

I do like Conor's "musical chairs" imagery, and thought of it first thing this a.m. while getting ready to go vote.

But the top honors for this round must go to MSJS's acerbic analysis of this piece.
It is, hands down, the best writing I have read in this contest to date.

Next year's contest should allow readers in the "peanut gallery" to challenge the contestants and take them out.

Posted by: martymar123 | November 2, 2010 9:36 AM
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If you require a first paragraph that makes you wet your pants, then Conor might not be your pundit. However, progressive values and sensible, nuanced positions are exactly what I'd like to read more often. That's my vote. It's complicated.

Posted by: dade52 | November 2, 2010 6:02 AM
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So I guess the lack of Americans believing in fiscal conservatism really just means we will have "Greek" moment in time, only we are not as small and the EU is not big enough to handle our debts. Of course many Americans want more government services> These people are likely drawn from the large % who pay no Federal income taxes so of course they would like more. As to the message of the 2008 election and what it means..let's not forget that race did play a key role and though many white Americans may believe the race monkey is off our back, the reality is that minorities are still very under-represented in all levels of government.

Posted by: luvmtains | November 2, 2010 3:48 AM
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Having read all three pieces I do feel Connor's comment was the best of the three but, it also should be noted that those making comments should remember that the push here was to "craft an op-ed column that showcases their writing style, smarts and unique point of view." If the idea was to stir philosophical debate then Chucky-EL wins because his comments are right on target.

Of the three Connor's style is interesting, a little wordy but readable and has views that may be worthy of discussion. Yet all three of the writers sound like they need someone to blame for things not working out like they were suppose to.

They all can write but there is one thing that is missing they keep forgetting that there is no magic lamp and the genie will not grant you wishes.

As Connor notes "Don't forget, the music starts again on Wednesday." Connor as well as the other two writers and the rest of the country need to remember is that there is "No Credit Fairy".

Posted by: greymoon | November 2, 2010 1:39 AM
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Posted by: MsJS:
I cast my vote for the commenters. Seriously. If any of you write regularly elsewhere, let me know so I can follow you from time to time.
I agree. A run-off between MsJS, martymar123, and CHUCKY-EL would have produced true Great Pundit fare.

While these three are good to mediocre depending on the day, none quite hit the GP level. On the other hand, they are FAR better than last year's clown.

Also would note 3 far better GPs were eliminated in the round of ten, mostly because their Facebook Friend circle was too small.

Posted by: chucky-el | November 1, 2010 11:13 PM
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As bland a porridge of recycled off-the-shelf observations as I can possibly imagine. I do not wish to be brutal, but this is just drivel.

Posted by: tfe1231 | November 1, 2010 9:25 PM
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I didn't get as annoyed with this one as I did with the other two finalists'.
But that is no mandate for any of them.

Posted by: realitybased1 | November 1, 2010 9:19 PM
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I would think that the key to being a great pundit is the ability to understand the basic principle that people -- and by extension, the truth -- are complex. Conor Williams clearly understands that complexity and doesn't try to shoehorn the world into the "R" side and the "D" side.

While throwing insults and obfuscating the truth may sell newspapers, there are plenty of Post columnists (e.g., Eugene Robinson, Dana Milbank) who already have that market cornered. I am looking for someone who can cut through the insults and shed new light on the most relevant subjects of the day. Williams is my choice.

Posted by: diehardlib | November 1, 2010 2:49 PM
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MSJS has it right.

Read the author's self description - I’m working on a PhD in Government at Georgetown, so I’m full of ideals, but my optimism is tempered by experience.

This is like a PhD thesis - not like an editorial. As he says without saying - he is a liberal who wants an excuse when the Dems lose and doesn't believe the republicans will do better. Wave elections aren't difficult at all to interpret - it is that the party in power is being rejected. The last Republican Wave was in 1994 - what are the similarities. A democratic President who misread his mandate and foundered on healthcare reform - now that wold have been an interesting column from a PhD candidate - but the conclusion wouldn't have agreed with his idealism that the elite know how to address our healthcare needs better than we do.

Posted by: TuckerAndersen1 | November 1, 2010 1:32 PM
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Of the three, this is the only voice with a hope of becoming original. Of course, the country is looking for a master weaver who can take this mess of discordant threads and make a coherent weaving. It has to be done with the threads that are there, some can be tied off, but most must be incorporated. The Democrats have had four years to deal coherence into the economic tangle. They haven't come close. They spend precious time decrying George W. Bush. It isn't nearly as melodious as Joan Baez covering Kumbaya. And no more effective at moving the body politic.
To William's point, it will be easy for the Republicans to ignore the work and focus on the high fives. No celebrations are in order, just getting to work. Lay out a coherent set of goals that the majority of the country can support and then set to work on educating the entire country on what is at stake. If Obama wants to join in, fine. But, he needs to be reminded by action that elections have consequences. In my view, what is at stake is our freedom and liberty of action as American citizens.

Posted by: DoubleDonn | November 1, 2010 1:01 PM
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Creatively worded folderol at its best. Though there is nothing new with trying to find excuses for failing to listen to the American voters.

Of course there are a lot of viewpoints and intentions when America goes to the polls, but some things really are as simple as they seem.

In 2008 Obama offered change we could believe in, his promises of transparency in government, reducing corruption, lower cost health care and restoring honor (though many of didn’t see where America had actually lost it’s honor) and leveling the playing field to provide more economic opportunities seemed a welcome change from the past.

What we got however was secret backroom deals, closed door meetings, tax dollar bribes for votes, bail-outs for select companies others be damned, an extremely expensive health care plan, shameful apologies for American greatness, and an even more unfair playing field.

Never before have we seen a president who would openly attack American citizens simply because they disagree with him. From Joe the Plumber to the Chamber of Commerce one questions this president at your own peril. Calling for his “enemies” to prove they are innocent while ignoring illegal activity from those friendly to him and his cause. Recently calling about half of all citizens his enemies and asking that they be punished.

This is not the change we voted for, and his not the change that was promised. This is the old style politics of say whatever you need to say to get elected, and then do what you want and make yourself and your friends’ rich along the way; all at our expense.

Posted by: robinTX54 | November 1, 2010 12:56 PM
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American voters may indeed be mysterious creatures.  However, 56% of the respondents to The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University Study felt things would be better if there were a national referendum system enabling all citizens to vote on major national issues.  Isn’t that a mandate not easily misread?

Posted by: AegirC | November 1, 2010 12:40 PM
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Sorry, Jack. I had no substantive compliments for this one. If I had, I would have offered them.

As with Nancy's column, I felt like I needed a machete. When I find myself reading "always," "never" and "obviously" a lot,
then I wonder why you bothered to write.
This column and Nancy's were a chore for me to read. Maybe that says more about me than either writer, and if so, sorry.

"Substantive commenters have substantive compliments.

Other commenters chide Conor for using the same word twice."

Wow. What a substantive comment, Jack.
Maybe you should have left it with, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

Posted by: martymar123 | November 1, 2010 12:29 PM
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Clever final line! This piece sheds a lot of light on election behavior and makes me not feel so bad about not being able to understand the candidates near the ends of their campaigns. How can we keep their views separated from the musical chair madness?

This was a great heads up. Thanks.

Posted by: jhones | November 1, 2010 12:24 PM
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Hmmm. Substantive commenters have substantive compliments.

Other commenters chide Conor for using the same word twice.

On points, this round, and the contest, go to Williams.

Posted by: JackRyan82 | November 1, 2010 11:53 AM
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Well done! Took the difficult subject of the how Americans vote and transcended the lame stream media who work to create controversy to sell more of their product. Got right to the unsexy truth, that "Diverse Constituencies Across the Country Continue to Support Distinct Candidates for Different Reasons." Good demonstration of Big Picture understanding by going to the factual core of the issues.

On the other hand you missed the core truth of the Obama presidency, that when he became president America had gone over the cliff and was about to crash into the Second Great Depression. All of Obama's actions have been over shadowed by the necessity to create and save jobs and stabilize the economy.

Then once again you get it right, "This will mean a return to power for Republicans, who are largely committed to preventing public institutions from addressing the nation's problems."

Please do not attempt to be "fair and balanced", presumably so as not to alienate potential voters. In this case one party has publically avowed to shut down the government for four years with the sole purpose of returning to power, America be damned. President Obama, on the other hand, has attempted bi-partisanship at a political cost inside his own party. A Great Pundit speaks to the truth, and lets the chips fall where they may.

Posted by: chucky-el | November 1, 2010 11:46 AM
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Mushy, formalistic verbiage that I would call unconvincing, if I could figure out what the writer was trying to convince me of.

Posted by: Gradivus | November 1, 2010 11:34 AM
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It's difficult to tackle this issue this late in the game and sound original. I thought the author managed to do so and kept the focus going forward, not on tomorrow's polls.

It would be interesting to hear what the author thinks about each party's ability to shape their mandate, both pre- and post-election (clearly Tea Party rhetoric has made an impact on voters' expectations!).

Posted by: SirBoston | November 1, 2010 10:52 AM
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Excellent column. One of the best I've read in a very long time. In terms of the contest, you deserve a winning vote on all criteria. However, your column misses the real reason why both parties keep "misreading" their mandate. We only have two parties, and in their relationship to coporate power, both parties have been corrupted. The rules have been rigged to prevent anyone from running and winning who is NOT corrupted or corruptible.

Posted by: curbpeakdemand | November 1, 2010 10:37 AM
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“American voters are mysterious creatures,” says the author. Ah, but then he goes on to tell us exactly what those who voted for Obama in 2008 were thinking.

So which is it? Are they mysterious or not?

“In this case, however, the Democrats egregiously misread their mandate,” writes the author after telling us in the previous paragraph that “there was no single message in the 2008 elections.”

So which is it? Did the Democrats have a mandate to misread or not?

He then goes on to mis-equate an anticipated Republican victory on November 2 with a mandate. In fact much of the rest of the column assumes the Republicans will have a mandate to misread. Yet the 49 percent to 47 percent poll figures he quotes regarding government services and spending points to no definitive mandate from the electorate at all.

So which is it? Will the Republicans have a mandate to misread or not?

In the final paragraph, we readers are finally treated to the author’s point. My response is twofold:
1) The lack of originality and insight is profound. “Once again, the nation won't be speaking with one voice, so the message will be mixed.” Yes, mixed messages usually show up when there isn’t unanimity.
2) There is nothing preceding this paragraph I needed to read. For what it’s worth it can, and should, stand alone. It’s a little sound bite dressed in a column-sized costume for the day after Halloween.

Posted by: MsJS | November 1, 2010 10:34 AM
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Interesting there was no mention of the Tea Party and the center-stage role it will certainly play when the tea leaves are read regarding this election cycle’s mandate. For the first time in recent memory there is a brand identity affixed to a major party’s most vocal and strident element. Surely they will be assigned credit or blame, depending upon one’s point of view, for any Republican gains or losses. And just as assuredly, such attention will take focus off the great oscillating middle where both the real action and answers lie.

Posted by: pszyd | November 1, 2010 10:00 AM
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Reading the electorate and understanding the country's priorities is always a hard task. In 2008 we were probably rejecting a Presidency and not focusing on the Democratic candidate - who had never even run a memonade stand before,and has spent two years campaigning from a Senate seat. While I liked your article, the idea of a "mandate" was never fully explained, and the election results - if they are a wipeout as expected - need to be analyzed before one can say what the public's agenda actually is.

Posted by: jgdonahue | November 1, 2010 9:04 AM
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Extremely well done. Insightful and nuanced. You learn something from this.

Posted by: jkk1943 | November 1, 2010 8:33 AM
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"Don't forget, the music starts again on Wednesday."

Indeed it does.

Second sentence of the piece was way too wordy, especially in the first paragraph, where you need to get my attention.

You write: "Of course, what's sexy isn't always true, even if it sells.

Electoral messages are always murky."

The use of "always" twice, so close together was distracting and dilutes the impact of what you have to say.

Many good thoughts, tighten it up a bit.

Posted by: martymar123 | November 1, 2010 8:14 AM
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