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Down With Divided Government

I am a great fan of the Financial Times, and I was interested to see that they endorsed Barack Obama for president. But they couldn’t do so without perpetuating one of the great fallacies of American politics--a fallacy that is currently echoed by the McCain campaign and the Republican party. Describing their reluctance to endorse Obama, they write, "Since the election will strengthen Democratic control of Congress, a case can be made for returning a Republican to the White House: divided government has a better record in the United States than government united under either party.”

Let’s first look at those past administrations that enjoyed singular success. Most lists would include George Washington’s two terms, Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Theodore Roosevelt’s (just about) two terms, and Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms. A longer list not based on consensus might include Thomas Jefferson’s first term, Andrew Jackson’s two terms, Woodrow Wilson’s first term, Harry Truman’s two terms, and Ronald Reagan’s two terms.

Of the consensus choices, all enjoyed a united government (in George Washington’s days, there were not really parties). Of the more controversial choices, Truman suffered through divided government for only two of seven plus years. Reagan is somewhat harder case. In his first six years, he enjoyed what was functionally a united government, because he could count on a majority of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats; only in his last two years did he have to deal with a Congress controlled by the opposition--and those, of course, were the years of the Iran-Contra scandal, where, on domestic policy, his administration ground to a halt.

Now let’s look at the more disastrous moments in the history of American administrations--where charges of impeachment were brought, and recriminations paralyzed the government. That would have to include the administrations of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton--all instances of divided government. I’d also add the last two years of Wilson’s second term when divided government (and Wilson’s illness) set America on the track of irresponsibility in foreign and domestic policy. So if you look at America’s moments of glory and ignominy, the conclusion is inescapable: divided government is a curse, not a blessing, and should be avoided, if at all possible.

Of course, this account is too simple. If you want to probe the question more deeply, I would recommended The Politics Presidents Make by Stephen Skowronek. Skowronek, a Yale political scientist, distinguishes two kinds of circumstances that have led to crippled government. In the first, a president from an opposing party, but who nevertheless represents the wave of the political future, confronts a congress wedded to the past and determined to frustrate him. You could put Nixon (who was the harbinger of an emerging Republican majority) and Clinton (who was the harbinger of an emerging Democratic majority) in this group. Both these presidencies degenerated into chaos in their second terms.

Then, there are presidents who, in Skowronek’s words, are “affiliated with a set of established commitments that have in the course of events been called into question as failed or irrelevant responses to the problems of the day.” Skowroneck numbers among these James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. These presidents don’t necessarily have to contend with a Congressional opposition in power, but like Hoover and Carter in their last two years, with a nascent and growing opposition in Congress that constitutes a functional majority in opposition to what they want to do. These presidencies have also proved disastrous.

A John McCain presidency would clearly fall in the latter group, and McCain, unlike Hoover and Carter, would have to face clear and unequivocal majorities in Congress united against him. Rather than promising success, that kind of divided government would promise chaos and failure. But don’t tell that to the proponents of divided government.

--John B. Judis