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When Paul Ryan and top congressional Republicans gathered the evening of Jan. 20, 2009, to plot a strategy of absolute and unrelenting opposition to Barack Obama's presidency and the House and Senate Democrats who had received a mandate from the American people to work with the enormously popular president-elect, Kevin McCarthy told the group: "If you act like you're the minority, you're going to stay in the minority. We've gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign."

That determination to resist the Obama agenda offended Democrats and thrilled Republicans. But, at the most fundamental level, it was nothing more than Politics 101.

An opposition party exists to oppose the party in power.

Ryan and his fellow partisans understood this in 2009.

Yet, now, Ryan and the Republicans are whining about the failure of Democrats to be a “loyal opposition” that willingly compromises and cooperates with President-elect Donald Trump, Ryan and the wrecking crew they have assembled to destroy essential programs — beginning with Medicaid.

Ryan claims Trump “earned a mandate” for a “go big, go bold” agenda, while Trump “counselor” Kellyanne Conway is not just claiming a mandate but griping that critics of the billionaire are “attempting to foment a permanent opposition that is corrosive to our constitutional democracy.”

“The left is trying to delegitimize his election,” grumbles Conway. “They’re trying to deny him what he just earned.”

Ryan and Conway should brush up on their math.

Trump earned 2.9 million fewer votes than his Democratic rival.

The Republican earned just 46 percent of the popular vote. Only a narrow Electoral College advantage made him president-elect.

Republican Senate candidates earned just 42 percent of the vote across the country. The Senate Republican Caucus lost two seats.

Republican House candidates earned just 49 percent of the vote across the country. Far from receiving the endorsement of an enthusiastic electorate, Ryan’s House caucus lost six seats.

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By every measure, Trump, Ryan and their allies lack the overwhelming popular support that Obama and congressional Democrats had on Jan. 20, 2009. Yet, while Ryan and his compatriots resolved in 2009 to oppose a president and a Congress that enjoyed a mandate, they now demand acquiescence to a president and Congress that lack one.

It is absurd to suggest that this administration and Congress enjoy enthusiastic popular support. They don’t.

It is even more absurd to claim that noting actual election results is an attempt at delegitimization. Conway has the calculus precisely wrong. Claiming a mandate when no mandate exists is the real attempt to delegitimize the election — by denying the reality that most Americans did not vote for Trump or for the Republican Senate that will soon attempt to rubber-stamp his nominees for Cabinet posts and the extreme agenda advanced by Ryan in the House.

The irrefutable fact on which to base all thinking about politics in the New Year extends from this: Democrats have dramatically greater justification for opposing the Trump-Ryan agenda in 2017 than Ryan and his fellow Republicans had for opposing the Obama agenda in 2009. Instead of the “loyal opposition,” Democrats should position themselves as the legitimate (and necessary) opposition to an agenda that has no mandate.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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