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Split Ends

The myth of divided government.

No sooner had Republicans swept into power, promising to repeal President Obama’s major initiatives and make his defeat their top priority, than a bevy of pundits declared that this was all just a prelude to a new era of moderation and compromise. What will bring about this outbreak of bipartisanship? Simple: divided government. All you need to do is give each party some stake in the success of government, and watch the cooperation blossom.

Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal made the case in a New York Times op-ed, but the notion is a hardy perennial. Republicans may have sat on the sidelines throwing bombs for two years, the argument goes, but that’s only because they had no reason to care. Under divided government, “Both parties, responsible for governing, have a stake in success,” writes Rauch.

It would be nice if both parties had a stake in success. But they don’t. Political science studies—one by political scientist Helmut Norpoth, and another by Richard Nadeau and Michael Lewis-Beck—have found that voters hold the president alone responsible for the condition of the country.

Think back to the disastrous last two years of the Bush administration. Did voters lay part of the blame on Democrats who controlled the House? Of course not. When the country appeared to be going down the toilet after Democrats won the House in 2006, voters gave them even more seats in 2008. Even when controlling Congress, the party opposing the president has a stake in failure.

Now, in theory, if members of Congress believe they’ll be judged by voters for conditions in the country, they’ll have an incentive to act responsibly. And for a long time, members of Congress did believe this. But it seems pretty clear that Republicans understand that voters hold President Obama almost entirely responsible for the state of the nation and that sabotaging his presidency is their best route to regaining power. A Republican aide recently explained why the party does not fear a standoff that would allow all the Bush tax cuts to expire. “They might blame GOP obstructionism,” he said. “But, you know, people are going to start missing a lot of money in their weekly paychecks in January. And there’s only going to be one person in the White House.”

Only one person in the White House. That reflects a correct and clearheaded understanding that, even if Republican intransigence produces an outcome that is regarded as bad by Republicans, it will redound to the party’s benefit.

Even if Republicans did misunderstand their own incentives, or just wanted to do noble things out of a self-sacrificial loyalty to the public good, their individual incentives would strongly militate against doing so. Republicans who even considered bipartisan legislation, like Utah Senator Robert Bennett, have faced right-wing primary challengers for their trouble. Even if it did make sense for the party as a whole to compromise with Obama, for individual Republicans, it would be a suicide mission.

The premise underlying the predictions of bipartisan cooperation is that policies commanding the center of the political spectrum are inherently superior to those that pit one side against the other. Democrats, argues Rauch, have been “governing from the center of [their] party instead of the center of the country.”

But is it really true that Democrats governed from the center of their party? The middle of the Democratic Party favored health care reform with a public option, a cap-and-trade law, labor-law reform with card-check organizing, a larger stimulus, and many other liberal policies that President Obama ran on in 2008. Thanks to the filibuster, they got only the parts that were acceptable to Ben Nelson and the Republican Maine senatorial delegation.

There’s certainly something to be said for legislation that draws support from a broad and diverse coalition. That, however, is exactly what we got under one-party government during the last term. The stimulus drew support from business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, labor unions, Wall Street, and most economists. The Affordable Care Act brought together nearly all the stakeholders in the medical and insurance industries along with unions and a host of policy wonks. Cap-and-trade legislation had the backing not just of environmentalists but also labor, utilities, and at least tepid support from a handful of extractive industries.

To believe in the superiority of centrist policies—defined as the middle ground between the two parties—is to tether oneself to the rapid shifts of a radicalizing Republican Party. In 1993, Republicans like Bob Dole endorsed a comprehensive health care plan featuring an individual mandate, subsidies for those who couldn’t afford coverage, and regulation of the insurance market. In 2010, that became the “left-wing” plan. To ascribe metaphysical supremacy to policies in “the center” is to believe that Dole’s plan was the epitome of moderation and wisdom in 1993, but wild big-government overreach today.

The main trouble with the endorsement of divided government is a failure to grasp the cause of the unraveling of a bipartisan consensus. “[R]ecent presidents have had more success when forced to work with slim majorities in Congress, or even none at all,” asserted Matt Bai in The New York Times earlier this year. Bai cited tax reform under Ronald Reagan and environmental protection under Richard Nixon. Of course, those policies depended on Republican presidents who accepted goals, such as toughening environmental regulation and cracking down on corporate tax evasion, that are antithetical to the contemporary party.

Electoral politics in a two-party system inherently creates zero-sum competition. This reality was subordinated for a long time, because the peculiar politics of Southern white supremacy created many decades of ideologically amorphous parties with overlapping policy aims. That, in turn, blinded members of Congress to the fact that their success depended upon the other party’s failure.

The fetishization of divided government resembles a kind of cargo cult: If only we reconstruct the division of power from 1983, then surely the Greenspan Commission will return to solve our problems. The conditions that created those old bipartisan agreements aren’t coming back, no matter what you do to conjure them.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article ran in the December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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