The simplest understanding of “divided government” is that is a formula for policy paralysis. The election results (in which it can be said that the Democrats O-bombed) that gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives and left the Democrats a majority of the Senate means that no major initiatives will pass, the White House will become increasingly frustrated (and vindictive), and the national mood will darken.
But the simple understanding is not necessarily accurate. Divided government might be the most efficient and popular configuration as it retains and emphasizes the checks and balances that are the heart of the American government. Bret Stephens (Wall Street Journal) said it well – in a different context – that “disunity is not just the reality for democracy; it is the premise.” Why is this form of government ideal ?
History bears this out. Whenever one party has controlled all branches of government (including, in a pragmatic sense, the Supreme Court) that party has sought to run roughshod over the populace. FDR, with huge majorities in Congress in 1937, looked to pack the Supreme Court that had been rightly hostile to the excessive government intrusions of the New Deal. (He succeeded anyway – after the 1935 Supreme Court rejection of several New Deal programs – when one judge changed his mind, followed by the retirement and replacement of another.) Carter was a personal and professional disaster notwithstanding his huge Congressional majorities. Obama is a more egregious example, because his attempted re-making of the American economy, health care system, energy policy and profligate spending were accomplished with scarcely any Republican votes – and sometimes with none at all. And in the early 2000’s when Republicans controlled both executive and legislative branches, they too had a sorry record of achievement, adding to the debt by increasing government responsibility for prescription drug payments, among other deeds.
Conversely, since 1968, Republicans have dominated the presidency (28 years to 14 years) and forced to cooperate with mostly Democratic majorities. Nixon, Reagan and Bush I faced Democratic majorities in the House, and only Reagan merited a Republican Senate for several years of his term. Each (especially Nixon and Reagan) produced significant and transformative legislation – and only through bi-partisan efforts. Undoubtedly, the balanced budgets of the late 1990’s (for which President Clinton has long been praised) resulted from the fact that he had a Republican House that produced those budgets – Newt Gingrich, John Kasich (new governor of Ohio) and others. Everyone knows that the Constitution (Article I) gives budgetary authority to Congress, not the Chief Executive. That Republican Congress drafted those budgets, which included slightly increased social spending and a capital gains tax cut. The latter, and the revenue windfall created by the technology boom fluke of that era, balanced the budget. (The deficits of the early 2000’s were caused not by the war but primarily by the decrease in revenues after the “dot-com” bust, when the fluke was exposed and companies that had exhausted their capital went under having never manufactured a viable product or turned a profit.) All the aforementioned successes occurred with a “divided government” and there is not a chance that a Democratic Congress –enamored of deficit spending and the opportunity to “spread the wealth around” – would have allowed Clinton, even if he was so minded, to balance any budget.
On some level “divided government” reflects the infantilized society that, if not provided immediate satisfaction, turns elsewhere for help. Economy bad under Republicans ? Vote Democrat! Economy worse under Democrats ? Vote Republican! This pattern is classically Israeli, in which society has flipped from dove to hawk and back and forth – for more than three decades. “This one will bring peace,” and when he disappoints and a wave of violence ensues, “that one will bring security.” And when the atmosphere calms down, a new peacenik arises, and the cycle repeats: Begin/Shamir, then Peres, then Shamir, then Rabin/Peres, then Netanyahu, then Barak, then Sharon/Olmert, and now Netanyahu. And so the Ferris wheel turns. President Bush II was never really as “popular” as he was said to be post-Arab terror of 9/11 – a 90% approval rating – nor ever as “unpopular” as he was said to be at the end of his tenure (high 20% range). It is just that people are flighty.
On a deeper level, “divided government” can work better because it is an accurate reflection of a divided society. Governments that wish to retain the support of the people (and not just its base) usually operate between the 40-yard lines, avoiding dramatic changes – except after cataclysms – and seeking incremental improvements in the life of the citizenry. Political adversaries can adjust to gradual modifications in law and policy; sudden and sharp reversals will cause upheaval and dismay. That has also been the case with Israel’s unruly democracy which for years operated with the unwritten agreement that the Right would not annex the land and expel the Arabs, and the Left would not surrender land and expel the Jews. When the Left breached its side of the agreement, with the barest majority sustaining it (if it even was a majority; two right-wing legislators from the defunct Tzomet party were literally bribed with Mitsubishis and ministries and became the deciding votes for Oslo II), the shock to the Israeli political system was intense, and has not yet fully receded.
Case in point is the tumult that erupted when President Bush II proposed allowing workers to privately invest 10% (that’s it: 10%!) of their annual Social Security contributions. This violated one of the foundations of Democratic governance: the capacity to hide massive deficits by tapping into the Social Security funds, which, until LBJ’s time, was off-budget and sacrosanct. That is no longer the case, which is why Social Security today is the largest Ponzi/Madoff scheme in history – paying today’s recipients by stealing from tomorrow’s, and worrying about tomorrow’s tomorrow. Or after the next election. Bush’s suggestion was stopped in its tracks, dead on arrival, because it breached a sacred principle of the Democratic Party: never close off any revenue stream that can fund government.
The real question is whether President Obama has the capacity to moderate his expectations and coordinate his policy goals with the Republicans, to whom he recently referred as “enemies” (a term he eschews even for Islamic terrorists). Failed Messiahs do not compromise, or retire, easily, and cooperating with conservatives undermines two core aspects of the Democratic appeal to Americans today: the embrace of class warfare and group identity, and the imperative of having those who work and create wealth support those who don’t or won’t. The choice is his, and his best chance of re-election rests in finding some modus vivendi with Republicans. Barack Obama, meet Rand Paul.
In sum, “divided government” can be a blessing, as it constrains the encroachment of government on the liberties of the individual and moderates the scope of government involvement in our lives. Divided government is forced to be less ambitious and heavy-handed, and that is a boon for those who work, build, create, manufacture and renew – in other words, divided government through its limitations can foster a revitalization of the American spirit.
Bush’s Social Security plan failed before the 2006 election. Republicans held Congress and the Senate at the time (and it failed in the house without even getting to a vote, so the size of the majority was not the issue either). The sacred principle Bush violated was “Don’t make the centerpiece of your second term in office a really really unpopular piece of legislation.” That applies to both parties.