Joshua Muravchik, in the January Commentary, examines The New York Times’ shifting view of what constitutes an electoral mandate:
Several of the President’s detractors hastened to suggest that his relatively narrow margin of victory – amounting to 3 percent of the popular vote – should not be taken as a “mandate.” Whether they would have said the same had Bush’s Democratic opponent won by a like amount is doubtful.
The New York Times, for example, has regularly questioned the presence of a mandate in recent elections – but only when the winner has been a Republican. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan bested incumbent President Jimmy Carter by 10 percentage points, the paper’s editors observed that his “mandate,” a word they themselves put in suspicion arousing quotation marks, had “little policy content,” a position they reiterated four years later when Reagan won reelection over Walter Mondale by a whopping 18 percentage points ( a “lonely landslide” and “a personal victory with little precise policy mandate.”) Nor could the 8- point victory by Bush’s father over Michael Dukakis “fairly be called a mandate,” asserted the paper in 1988.
Whenever a Democrat has won, by contrast, the Times has perceived things differently. After Bill Clinton’s first victory (by 6 percentage points) in 1992, the eidtors commented: “The test now will be how quickly President-elect Clinton can convert his mandate into momentum.” When he won re-election (by 8 points) in 1996, it repeated the thought – “There can be no question about his mandate” – and added a little civics lesson: “The American people express their clearest opinion about what they want government to do through their choice of chief executive.”