Dispatch October 2008

Too Much Partying?

Are McCain and Palin right to fear Democratic control of the House, Senate and presidency?

The Republican Party's closing argument against letting the Democrats win the presidency and shore up control of Congress is that the Democrats would then … win the presidency and shore up control of Congress. In other words, one party would have it all. "You can imagine Obama, Reid and Pelosi," John McCain warned a rally in Cleveland on Monday. "Tax and spend, tax and spend." In Virginia, Sarah Palin was busy imagining a similar apocalypse: "If big government spenders control the House and Senate and, heaven forbid, the White House, they will have a monopoly of power."

The GOP ticket's argument against monopoly is a pretty telling indicator of just how lopsided this election has become: "Vote for us because if you don't the other guys are really going to wallop us" is not the slogan of a party that expects success. It was also an argument that was notably absent when the shoe was on the other foot: Karl Rove was famous for his sly talk about building "a permanent Republican majority," and you rarely heard anyone in the Bush-era GOP making high-minded appeals to the need for balance and restraint.

But Rove had this one right the first time. There's nothing inherently wrong with one-party rule. Indeed, it's a perfectly reasonable and predictable consequence of democracy. If most of the country has a strongly held set of preferences, it's strange to suggest that this majority should hold back from voting for the candidates that best satisfies those preferences because doing so would confer too much power upon them. Satisfying voter preferences by conferring power isn't a drawback of democracy; it's the whole point.

Of course, some critics of one-party rule worry that handing all the levers of power to one party might give that party everything it needs to stay in power for good. (The lessons of Lord Acton have sprung suddenly into many a Republican heart.) But American democracy has checks against that possibility built into the Constitution: the separation of powers, the Bill of Rights, varying term lengths—all of them designed in part to make sure that democracy keeps functioning even if the party registration in the Oval Office matches that on the Senate floor. Why should we ask voters to do the Constitution's job for it?

Well, the main reason offered seems to be that one-party governments produce worse outcomes than the alternative. When the Financial Times endorsed Obama earlier this week, it hemmed and hawed a bit because "divided government has a better record in the United States than government united under either party." Yesterday morning's Washington Post, meanwhile, pondered whether the spectre of one-party rule might be a point in John McCain's favor, and waxed hopeful about how "a process in which both parties play a role can sometimes lead to better outcomes."

But the claim that divided government produces better outcomes is historically flimsy. For one thing, as John Judis pointed out earlier this week on the New Republic's blog, the most widely admired governments in the long sweep of American history—like Lincoln, Washington and FDR—were united under a single party. On the other side of the docket, divided government has frequently pitted a president of one party against a Congress of another to disastrous effect—à la Nixon, or the Clinton impeachment.

But it's also the case that, in recent history, the argument against one-party rule fails when measured against most basic economic indicators. Since 1948 there have been 22 years in which one party (usually the Democrats) has controlled the presidency, the House and the Senate. The average unemployment over the last 60 years has been 5.6 percent, and the average unemployment rate during periods of one-party rule was slightly lower, 5.3 percent. The 60-year average growth in per capita GDP is about 2.13 percent. The one-party average is higher, about 2.8 percent. Nine of the last 60 years have seen a decline in GDP per capita; seven of those years were during periods of divided government. (My unemployment calculations are based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics; the data about per capita GDP comes from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which uses 2000 as the base year.)

I'm pretty skeptical that there's a causal connection between one-party control and lower unemployment or faster growth. Correlation isn't causation, the sample size is small, and there are lots of accounting and policy lags that might distort even the correlation suggested above. But McCain and Palin are setting the standard here: they want to suggest there is a tight link between the health of the country and the division of the government. So it's worth pointing out that, to the extent their claim is measurable, the data seem to indicate the exact opposite of what the Republicans want voters to believe. In which case they should probably stick to calling Obama a socialist.

Presented by

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.

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