This year’s elections could produce a Democratic president and Congress with one house or both controlled by the Republicans.
Many voters say that’s just what they want. They believe that divided government prevents excess and promotes compromise.
But they have a good chance of being disappointed – again. Here’s why.
On the night in January 2009 of Barack Obama’s first inaugural as president, Republican congressional leaders met and decided to maintain wall-to-wall opposition to anything he proposed. They wanted to make sure his presidency would fail and he would not be reelected.
A couple of years into Obama’s first term, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
But he left Obama an out. If the president would do a “backflip,” accepting Republican policies, they would work with him. Of course, there would be no backflip by the GOP.
Obama got some of what he wanted – like the Affordable Care Act – without a single Republican vote. Some of the responsibility was his, when he failed to master the congressional relations game.
Obama was reelected and continued to face GOP opposition. That’s probably why he resorted to the extensive use of executive orders on major issues. The Republicans attack his use of these orders, but allow him to act on his own rather than compromise with him.
Now comes Hillary Clinton, probably the next Democratic president. It seems highly unlikely that she will be able to do any better than Obama.
She promises to seek compromises with Republicans, but they would have to be willing to deal with her. Even if she were to back off some of her campaign positions, they are so committed to opposition that deals could be impossible.
To be sure, Clinton has faults and must continue to work on being more open. She gives the impression that she thinks she’s better than the rest of us, not a recipe for success.
But she has been demonized to such an extent that many voters dismiss and distrust her. That attitude would undoubtedly support a GOP attempt to block any of her policy initiatives or nominees to the courts or regulatory agencies.
The concept of bipartisan government makes sense, so long as both sides are willing to seek compromise. A president proposes, but should accept some of the ideas of the opposition to arrive at a broadly acceptable policy.
That takes political courage. Members of Congress and even the president must be willing to take heat from some of their own supporters to bring about compromises on major issues.
If the partisan divide among the voters is truly deep, as seems to be the case now, the degree of political courage needed is high. Exercising that kind of commitment to public policy, instead of clinging to partisanship, is what constitutes leadership.
But the American system seems to have reached a point where policy differences are equated with moral differences. Your opponent is not merely “wrong,” he or she is “bad.”
The presidential campaign illustrates that point. Many Clinton supporters think Donald Trump, the GOP candidate, is morally bankrupt. Many Trump supporters think Clinton is criminal. That’s not the path to compromise.
Perhaps it’s an argument for one-party government, not divided control between the two major parties. Though many people want government to work through compromise, the U.S. government seems to be beyond the point where that’s possible. (In passing, it’s worth noting that the Maine Legislature is much better at striking compromises.)
Given the big picture of national partisanship, a voter in federal elections should recognize he or she is not choosing between candidates so much as between parties.
Perhaps the most important action by a senator or member of Congress is who they support to control the Senate or House. That single vote is far more important than their vote on any issue.
In the obvious absence of the chance for compromise, it’s possible that the only hope for the end of the federal government deadlock is single party government.
Thanks to Clinton’s big lead and her political “coattails,” the Democrats have a reasonable chance of taking control of the Senate and a slim chance of achieving a House of Representatives majority.
Few voters may have this big picture. For example, in Maine’s Second District, the issues are not about economic or social policy. That election, like many others across the country, boils down to which party will control the House –Emily Cain’s Democrats or Bruce Poliquin’s Republicans.