Did Big Tents' Collapse Kill Deals?

Divided government is the new reality, but does it portend deals or deadlock? Divided government used to mean deals. More recently, it's meant deadlock.

Every Republican President in the past 50 years has had to contend with having at least one house of Congress being controlled by the Democrats. Split government used to work pretty well. Even a staunch conservative like Ronald Reagan was able to establish a good working relationship with House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, D-Mass. The two Irish pols knew how to make a deal.

But by the time George H.W. Bush became President, relations between the parties had deteriorated. His relationship with Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine was difficult, to the point where the Democratic-controlled Congress forced the Republican President to go along with higher taxes.

Things got a whole lot worse when Bill Clinton was President and Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., became House Speaker. That showdown led to a shutdown.

What had changed? The answer is, the parties became more ideological. Back when Franklin D. Roosevelt was President, the Democratic Party included urban political machines, reform-minded liberals, Southern white racists, labor organizers, and Socialists. When Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, the Republican Party included Wall Street industrialists, Main Street shopkeepers, Farm Belt isolationists, Yankee liberals, and Sun Belt conservatives.

As President, Democrat John F. Kennedy had to deal with die-hard segregationists such as Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia in his own party. Reagan had to deal with doves such as Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois in his own party.

When the parties were big tents, a President had to make deals within his own party in order to govern. Now the Democrats are more uniformly liberal, and the Republicans are more uniformly conservative. What does that mean? Here's what Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont said as he left the GOP: "In the past, without the presidency, the various wings of the Republican Party in Congress have had some freedom to argue and influence and ultimately shape the party's agenda. The election of President [George W.] Bush changed that dramatically."

In recent decades, the parties have lost ideological and geographical diversity. Take the four current Republican Senators who switched from the Democratic Party earlier in their careers. Three are Southerners: Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Phil Gramm of Texas, and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama. (The fourth is Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado.) Of the 10 House members who switched to the GOP in the past 20 years, eight were Southerners. When he switched in 1994, Shelby remarked: "I thought there was room in the Democratic Party for a conservative Democrat such as myself, representing people from Alabama and other areas of the South. But I can tell you, there is not."

The Northeast used to be the homeland of liberal Republicans such as Jacob Javits and John Lindsay of New York. Lindsay became a Democrat. Javits, a longtime Senator, was defeated in a primary. Sen. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut left the GOP and was elected governor as an independent after observing, "Liberal Republicans are no longer a wing of the Republican Party. They're a feather."

Party switchers have followed the voters of their regions. For more than 30 years, Southern white voters have been switching from Democrat to Republican. Meanwhile, the Northeast has been moving in the opposite direction.

In the past three presidential elections, every state in the Northeast (New England, plus Maryland and the Middle Atlantic states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) has gone Democratic, with the single exception of New Hampshire in 2000. In 1992, Bill Clinton lost seven of the 11 states that constituted the Old Confederacy. (Clinton carried his own Arkansas and running mate Al Gore's Tennessee, plus Georgia and Louisiana). The results were virtually the same in 1996: Clinton lost all but four Southern states, though not the same four states. (He picked up Florida and lost Georgia.) Last year, the South went completely Republican.

Jeffords's decision to leave the Republican Party was not entirely an act of courage. Vermont voted for Clinton twice. Gore carried the state by 10 percentage points in November. Vermont's sole House member, Bernard Sanders, is an independent and a Socialist.

The parties' tents have become smaller. Party leaders enforce more ideological uniformity—especially, as Jeffords noted, when the party occupies the White House. What if most Americans don't want to be governed from the left or the right? Forging a compromise is harder than it used to be, because both parties have come to see compromising as bad. When Clinton became President, Democrats controlled everything for the first two years and tried to govern from the left. It didn't work. When George W. Bush became President in January, Republicans controlled Congress and the White House for the first time in almost 50 years. They, too, were overcome by irrational exuberance.

So is compromise now in order? It depends. There's a congressional election next year. And each party must decide whether the voters want stark choices or shared accomplishments.