Comment October 2004

Divided We Stand

Republicans and Democrats should be careful what they wish for

George W. Bush is not the President he wanted to be. In 2000 he campaigned, famously, as "a uniter, not a divider," and by all indications he was perfectly sincere. As the governor of Texas he prided himself on finding common ground with the state's Democrats. But in the White House he proved to be a polarizer like no other President in memory.

What turned Bush into a divider? Not the Iraq War, or at least not only that. The war was certainly divisive, but it mainly divided Democrats. The Democratic Senate, after all, approved the war resolution, and John Kerry and John Edwards both voted for it (as did a majority of Senate Democrats and Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader). Nor is it the case, whatever Michael Moore may say, that Bush has governed as a conservative extremist. For every gift to conservatives (aggressive tax cuts, support for faith-based community groups, support for missile defense, abandonment of the global-warming treaty, restrictions on fetal stem-cell research) there has been a measure to offend them (campaign-finance reform, a giant new prescription-drug entitlement, the No Child Left Behind education law, an anti-market farm bill, anti-market steel tariffs, dizzyingly profligate federal spending). In truth, Bush looks less like Ronald Reagan than like Richard Nixon, a conservative who was consistent not in his conservatism but in his determination to poach all the best political real estate, wherever it lay. Like Nixon, but even more so, Bush is more polarizing than his policies. Why?

Bill Clinton recently offered a nugget of insight. In an interview in July with Rolling Stone magazine, he suggested that Bush and the Republicans blundered in 2002 by going all out to win control of the Senate and thus of Congress as a whole. (The Republicans have firmly controlled the House since 1995, whereas the Senate has recently been up for grabs.) "President Bush would have been far better off in his re-election if he'd let the natural rhythm of 2002 unfold and let the Democrats pick up a few seats," Clinton mused. "We would have held the Senate and maybe increased our margin by one or two; the House would be very close. But it would have compelled him to take a more moderate position."

The voters like divided government (shorthand for when one party controls the White House and the other controls at least one house of Congress). That is what they tell pollsters, and that is how they vote, having given control of both branches to one party in fewer than five of the past twenty-four years (1993-1994, half of 2001, and 2003-2004). And divided control seems to work fine. In 1991 the Yale University political scientist David R. Mayhew, in a book called Divided We Govern, looked carefully at the whole postwar period and concluded that, all else being equal, "unified party control contributes nothing to the volume of important enactments." More recently William A. Niskanen, the chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute and formerly the acting chairman of Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, argued that divided government helps restrain government spending and produces lasting reforms.

This may not be surprising, given the different dynamics of divided and unified control. Divided control compels each party to frame a governing agenda and then forces the parties to negotiate if anything is to be accomplished. The result is to drag both parties toward the center. Unified control, in contrast, tempts the dominant party to govern from its own center rather than the country's, leaving the excluded party to hiss and spit from the sidelines.

In 1981 a band of conservative House Democrats gave Reagan's Republicans effective (though not formal) control of both chambers of Congress. Carried away, Congress passed an even larger tax cut than Reagan had intended, while also increasing federal spending (notably on defense). Luckily for Reagan, the following year the Democratic leadership re-established control of the House. During the rest of his presidency the Democrats used their leverage to moderate his tax cuts and defense increases. They thereby put Reaganism on a sustainable footing and made Reagan himself look good. With the help of the Democrats, Reagan won re-election in a walk and left office with approval ratings well above 60 percent. Divided control also produced the 1986 tax reform, the great reform of the era.

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a correcpondent for The Atlantic and a senior writer for National Journal. His most recent book, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (2004), was excerpted in these pages.

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