Divided Government

In an exchange on the Brookings website, Jonathan Rauch makes the case for divided government, and in a characteristically crisp way:

The health care bill's enactment was a triumph for President Obama and one of America's great stories of political true grit. But Obama cannot rest on his laurels, and the country cannot afford a power nap. The remaining challenges are daunting: the economy (especially employment); financial reform; energy and the environment; above all, an impending fiscal train wreck.

In the face of those challenges, here is a two-word prescription for a successful Obama presidency: Speaker Boehner.

Jonathan has advanced the merits of divided government before. See "The curse of one-party government". (This earlier excellent piece seems to be behind NJ's formidable pay barrier.) As a bipartisan fetishist I usually agree with him on this subject. At the moment, though, I have my doubts.

[T]he country's biggest problems are too large for one party to handle, at least in any consistent way. The Democrats did pass health reform on a party-line basis, a remarkable accomplishment, but they did it by the skin of their teeth and with a Senate supermajority which has evaporated. That is not a trick they can keep performing.

Given the Democratic majorities when they embarked on healthcare reform, not to mention strong initial support in the country, it would have been more remarkable if they had failed. But I agree that they nearly did, which tells you something. I also agree that a genuinely bipartisan bill would have been better for the country. But the crucial issue for the next few years is fiscal control. The US is going to need higher taxes (as Jonathan himself has argued). I think the Democrats are more likely to raise taxes if they retain their Congressional majorities than if they have to share power with Republicans. These days, I think, a fiscal conservative leans liberal.

Bel Sawhill's comment on the Brookings exchange is intriguing. "Why not try a third party?" she asks. The gap between Democrats and Republicans keeps getting wider. That space in the middle looks increasingly vacant. But if it would take electoral reform to achieve this breakthrough, as she suggests, what are the chances of that?

Before much longer, of course, Britain might once again be trying an experiment along these lines.


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