Divided we do nothing
Americans seem to love a government at odds with itself
By Barry Gordon 11/23/2011
In 1991, well-known political scientist David Mayhew wrote an important book titled “Divided We Govern.” His basic thesis was that government was just about as effective under divided control — that is, when one party holds the presidency and the other has a majority in the House and/or the Senate — as it is when one party controls all three. As a good political scientist should, he backed up his theory with many charts and numbers from 1946 through 1990 (he extended the numbers through 2002 in a later edition). It is certainly evident from the research that things got done and, sometimes, some pretty important things like the Marshall Plan in 1947 or Reagan’s major tax reform bill in 1986.
We Americans seem to love divided government. Since 1955, we have installed a divided government far more frequently than a unified one. Out of the 29 congresses we’ve had since then, 19 of them have seen divided government in one form or other. Of course if Mayhew is right, it doesn’t matter. Laws get passed and, if anything, those laws have greater bipartisan support because of the sheer necessity of having to make compromises in order to reach a solution. How can that be a bad thing?
Far be it from me to suggest that a major work by a respected author has somehow become irrelevant. But, let’s face it, times have changed.
Mayhew writes of a time when bipartisanship meant something very different than it does today. First, the parties themselves were not ideologically pure. Some of the most liberal members of Congress in the 1950s and 1960s were Republicans, while some of the most conservative were Democrats (mostly Southerners). The parties had not yet gone through what journalist Ron Brownstein called “the great sorting out.” Today, the parties are more ideologically cohesive and less likely to win brownie points from their base for making a deal with the other side.
Second, bipartisanship in foreign policy was once taken for granted. The maxim used to be that “partisanship stops at the water’s edge.” One only has to read a newspaper or watch CNN to know how little that principle applies today.
Mayhew also assumes that “the Washington community seems to have a powerful tendency to work itself into a mindset of problem-solving.” Really? Does that describe today’s Washington to you? It might explain some Democratic moderates like Max Baucus or Kent Conrad, who are always ready to make a deal — any deal — in order to accomplish something, but it certainly doesn’t sound like their “partners” on the other side of the aisle. The Republicans have learned that gridlock and obstruction work in their favor politically, especially if they can make a president from the other party look weak and ineffectual in an election year.
Finally, Mayhew chooses to ignore other standards of measurement; for example, how much of a president’s legislative agenda is enacted. So he includes as legislative success the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, a piece of anti-labor legislation passed by a Republican Congress over President Truman’s veto. I would argue that a president’s agenda is the only measurement we should be looking at. Isn’t that why we elect him (or her) in the first place? Much of the complaining about Obama isn’t that he’s tried to do too much, but that he’s accomplished too little, even when he had a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. There is some validity to that argument, but I must point out the difference between 60 Democrats and 60 ideologically aligned Democrats. Conservative Democrats, like Ben Nelson from Nebraska, were just as obstructionist as Republicans when it came to things like the public option for health care or the more far-reaching aspects of Wall Street reform. That’s simply the cost of being a “big tent” party.
In the end, we need to ask ourselves why we love divided government. We seem to believe that a middle-of-the-road solution reached by consensus is always the correct one. If that’s true, the reasoning goes, let’s force those SOBs to get along. It’s the Rodney King theory of governing, and some very important authors and pundits have bought into it, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Middle-of-the-road can also be a euphemism for half-baked, incremental, kick-the-can-down-the-road solutions. The very fact that a bill can receive bipartisan support in these polarized times has to suggest that it is at best watered down, and at worst a mixed bag of contradictory and ineffective half-measures.
Is that truly what we’re looking for? When we elect someone like Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama on a platform of change, are we really saying “We want change — just not too much?” Or do we expect a dramatic shift in direction when we perceive that the country is going down the wrong track?
Here’s an idea. If you want lower corporate tax rates, less regulation of major industries, privatization or elimination of social programs, then please give us a Republican president with a solid Republican majority in both houses. If you don’t, then please reelect Obama and give him a strong Democratic majority to work with. But for Pete’s sake, America, make up your minds.