With the deep partisan split, it is appealing to think that divided government is both a check on political excess and a driver for compromise.
With no middle-of-the road influence in government, divided government should protect against extremes while forcing deals. At least in theory.
A closer look suggests divided government doesn’t work as well as we may think.
Harry Truman, a Democratic president, faced an unyielding Republican Congress that blocked his legislation. He used their opposition successfully in his own campaign for reelection, charging he faced a “do nothing” Congress. He won and also got a Congress of his own party.
Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Bill Clinton both confronted opposition control of Congress. Though they could sometimes make divided government work, Reagan ran into strong opposition for his illegal Iran-Contra fund shuffle, and Clinton was impeached.
Divided government works when the two sides try to meet public needs on which they both agree. It fails when the prospect of partisan gain from blocking the other side outweighs the responsibility of carrying out the public trust.
Politicians who say they can work with the opposition almost always end up these days following their party’s line.
Even those few considered moderates, like Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, end up falling in line with the dominant views of their parties when it comes to key votes.
These days, President Obama is unable to get the GOP-dominated House of Representatives to pass any bills that might make the Democrats look good. So we don’t get compromise. We get a mostly “do nothing” Congress.
The GOP won’t pass a bill on badly needed immigration reform, thought the parties largely agree, to avoid giving the Democrats the chance to take credit for the legislation.
Much the same is true at the state level. A Republican governor bitterly attacks a Democratic Legislature that sees itself as a check on him and not as his partner in implementing a conservative agenda. And he sets records with his vetoes.
In short, divided government is as likely to produce no results as to come up with moderate compromises.
By contrast, periods of one party rule have generally brought results. Under a president and Congress dominated by the Democrats in the 1930s and 40s, a great deal of legislation was passed. The point is not whether it was good or bad, but that it happened. Much the same is true of the Kennedy-Johnson era in the 1960s.
More recently, Republican President George W. Bush dealt with a GOP Congress for four years and was able to gain support for his foreign and domestic initiatives.
In Maine, Democratic control of the executive and legislative branches produced results. GOP Gov. Paul LePage got an income tax cut thanks to a Republican legislature.
Of course, if you were on the minority side during these periods of one-party rule, you might have preferred a “do nothing” Legislature.
There’s another key ingredient if divided government is to work – leadership. Leadership relies on good communication. Power in making deals under divided government depends on each party having the sense the other has developed major public support.
In Congress and the Legislature, members need to give their leaders the support to negotiate on their behalf.
But today, GOP House Speaker John Boehner seems to be hanging onto his power by his fingertips. He has little scope to deal with the president. And negotiations seem certain to be dead if the GOP takes over the Senate after this year’s elections.
On the executive side, the same need for leadership exists. President Obama does not communicate strength and does not stimulate wide public support. He often frames issues academically, which may be accurate but not confidence building.
Gov. LePage is the extreme opposite. There’s nothing academic about the way he expresses his positions. He is blunt and sometimes rude. That may inspire his supporters, but it undermines his chances to come to terms with the Democrats.
Obama, who leaves much of the public work of government to others, has become almost invisible in the media, leaving open the question if he is really running things. LePage is far more visible, but often more for his gaffes and partisanship than for his political initiatives.
For voters, it comes down to considering not only a candidate’s merits, but whether his or her election would promote a functioning government. It we want less political paralysis, maybe it’s time to abandon our belief in the virtues of divided government.