Virtues of Divided Government
It’s true that gridlock has been the norm in recent decades, with Democrats usually controlling at least one House of Congress and Republicans usually winning the presidency. This, however, almost certainly reflects the vagaries of our electoral system rather than some conscious choice for divided government.
For one thing, the “Democrats” that controlled the House of Representatives from 1955-1995 were really two parties, with the large cohort of Southern Democrats (or “Dixiecrats”) gradually being replaced by Republicans in the 1980s onward. For another, we elect presidents and Senators on a state-by-state basis and Representatives on a district-by-district basis, making aggregate policy preferences impossible to gauge on the basis of election outcomes.
Few people consciously split their ticket for the sake of “balance.” Indeed, it would be quite absurd to vote for a Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter and then deliberately seek to undermine that choice by pulling the lever for ideological foes in the legislature. To the extent ticket splitting occurs, it is almost always because of the overwhelming advantage of incumbency in Congress, especially the House.
The second premise, that divided government provides conservative outcomes, is more plausible but also difficult to test. After all, we’ve had one party control only for short periods: (off the top of my head) the first two years of the Eisenhower presidency, the Kennedy-Johnson years, the Carter administration, the first two years of the Clinton administration, and parts of the Bush administration. Given that most of those periods coincided with expensive wars, the data are necessarily skewed.
If by “conservative” we mean spending less money and passing fewer laws then it stands to reason that gridlock would make it harder to get things done. Then again, it could well result in more pressure for logrolling. The easiest way to “compromise” when buying on credit, after all, is to say “both.”
On the other hand, if by “conservative” we mean turning back social spending, appointing judges who will interpret the Constitution narrowly, and advancing a particular social agenda, it would stand to reason that Republican control would be more likely to achieve those ends.
There again, though, there’s little data by which to test those assumptions. The only ostensibly conservative Republican president who had majorities in both Houses is the current one and it’s hard to argue that conservatives controlled the Senate. Until losing the majority outright in the last election, the Republicans had razor thin majorities, including a 50-50 split that was briefly taken away by a single defection. Those majorities, furthermore, included a handful of Northern Republicans who would fully acknowledge that they’re not conservatives. And, of course, one needs a working majority of 60 votes to get anything controversial through the Senate, anyway.
It’s true that the Republicans spent money like drunken sailors during the few years they had control and that President Bush didn’t veto this profligacy. Many would argue that this just proves that Bush and many of the Republicans in Congress aren’t really “conservatives” in any meaningful sense.
While probably true, it’s mostly a reflection of the political realities in the country. There just isn’t any strong consensus for the libertarian-conservative agenda. Most Americans seemingly want the federal government to provide more services without raising taxes. That’s the best of all worlds from a short-term consumption and candidate re-electability standpoint. It’s the antithesis of conservatism, though.
Bartlett’s strategic advice is rather odd, too:
Therefore, if Republicans were to run a national campaign reminding voters that the best economic times we’ve had in living memory came when we had a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, I think it could persuade a lot of voters to split their votes. If, on the other hand, Republicans insist of believing that they can hold the White House and put all their eggs in that basket, then we could have a nightmare scenario where Democrats in Congress are free to enact bad legislation with no restraint.
It’s simply absurd to think that a major political party would openly abandon its quest for an open presidential seat, especially when the last two contests have been so closely decided. Despite the current dismal poll numbers, it’s likely that 2008 will also be close, even though I give the Democrats the edge.
Moreover, the scenario by which the Republicans take back the Senate and not the White House escapes me. The electoral map in the Senate — where there will be far more open and closely contested Republican than Democratic seats — overwhelmingly favors the Democrats. Absent an incredibly unlikely Reagan-like win with a major coattail effect, I don’t see how the GOP takes back the Congress in 2008.