In Defense of Two-Party Rule

by The New Republic | October 30, 2008

There is a longstanding, inchoate sense among American voters that having president and Congress controlled by different parties makes for better governance--a view that the GOP is using to scare voters into voting against the "dangerous threesome" of Obama, Pelosi, and Reid. After the Clinton years, that general sense became a kind of contrarian conventional wisdom of the commentariat as well. Earlier this week, John Judis made the counter-contrarian argument in favor of single-party rule, saying that divided government "is a curse, not a blessing." I'm not particularly afraid of the Democratic threesome--but Judis leaves me unpersuaded.

First, Judis disposes of the two eras that have persuaded many people of the virtues of divided government: Reagan's presidency (which Judis redefines as an era of unified government) and the last six years of Clinton's presidency (which he misremembers as a terrible time in American politics):

"Reagan is [the] somewhat harder case. In his first six years, he enjoyed what was functionally a united government, because he could count on a majority of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats; only in his last two years did he have to deal with a Congress controlled by the opposition--and those, of course, were the years of the Iran-Contra scandal, where, on domestic policy, his administration ground to a halt.

"Now let's look at the more disastrous moments in the history of American administrations--where charges of impeachment were brought, and recriminations paralyzed the government. That would have to include the administrations of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton--all instances of divided government."

I'd say that Reagan only enjoyed a semi-united government during his first two years in office. GOP losses in the House in 1982 shifted the tone pretty dramatically. Iran-Contra arose, after all, in part because Oliver North sought to evade the Congressionally-imposed limitations on aid to the Contras-- limitations that were imposed between 1982 and 1984, when Judis would have us count the government as united under Reagan Republicans.

The simple fact is that Republicans never controlled the House during Reagan's eight years. If we want to reclassify the question as being one of liberal or conservative majorities rather than as Democratic or Republican majorities in the two houses of Congress, then we'd need to do that over all the cases--and what we'd be examining wouldn't really be the question of divided government at all. The Boll Weevil Democrats of the early ’80s were still Democrats, and that matters for the divided-government thesis. They supported Reagan's economic agenda but still voted for Democratic leadership in the House--and so the Democratic majority retained its control over committees, the investigative and oversight functions of the House, and so on. Speaker Tip O'Neil lost some votes on the floor of the House that he'd rather have won; but that doesn't mean that Reagan's presidency when he faced Tip was like his presidency would have been if he'd been facing Newt Gingrich. If the ’80s were a good time for American governance and policy, then they count in favor of divided government. One of the hallmark legislative accomplishments of the era, the 1986 tax reform, was a bipartisan enterprise, because it had to be. It was Reagan’s as well as Rostenkowski's, Bradley's as well as Kemp's. It may well be that Reagan was made a better President by his need to reach across the aisle throughout his terms.

The last six years of Clinton’s presidency, 1995 to 2001, is the other era of divided government that gets held up as exemplary. Judis dismisses it as catastrophic on the basis of the Clinton impeachment. But that misses the wonderful weirdness of the late ’90s. The chaos of impeachment coexisted alongside bipartisan legislative accomplishments (most prominently, welfare reform, but also the only serious agricultural policy reform in a generation--unfortunately undone since--and the acceptance of China into the WTO, for example), and the semi-inadvertent budget surpluses that only lasted as long as they did because of divided government. Congress wouldn't agree to large spending hikes, while Clinton wouldn't agree to large tax cuts. And thank goodness. If the current financial crisis does not lead to a fiscal crisis, it will largely be because the U.S.'s debt-to-GDP ratio is a whole lot lower than it might have been, thanks to those years of near-balance and surplus. Again, I think a good president was made better through divided government.

What about the other impeachments--Johnson and Nixon--that Judis lists as “disastrous moments” brought on by divided government? Well, hedging against bad presidents is part of what we want out of divided government. Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon should have been impeached. Johnson was a Confederate sympathizer, and even such limited good as came out of Reconstruction came in spite of him, and thanks to the Radical Republicans who impeached him. As for Nixon, are we really to think that Judis believes the republic would be better off if Republicans had controlled both houses of Congress from 1972 to ’76, and so Congressional investigations into Nixon's acts would have lacked the vigor they had? Yes, important Republicans supported impeachment and resignation by the end; but I'm not at all sure that the investigating committees would have acted the same way at the beginning.

And now we have eight more years to add to the evaluation. In the first six years of Bush's presidency, he and Congressional Republicans brought out (or let out) the worst in each other. Spending and the deficit exploded as neither side of Pennsylvania Avenue had it in them to say, "No" to the other. Congress made no use of its investigative and oversight capacities; Bush made no use of his veto pen. Bad and badly-thought-out legislation went through quickly; and the corruption of the K Street Project and the DeLay years found no external check. The last two years have hardly been a highlight of good American government--but they've probably been less bad than the counterfactual two years would have been. I thought in 2006 and still think now that Bush's bad presidency should be checked with opposite-party control.

What about the next couple of years? The obvious prediction is that Obama will have at least two years of one-party government. That may be, temporarily, for the best--the Bush-era Republican Party, like the Nixon-era Republican Party, needs some time in the wilderness to unlearn some very bad habits. The fall of Ted Stevens is something to celebrate even if it inches Democrats closer to a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate; but I consider the latter a bug, not a feature. And in the unlikely event that a healthier, reformed Republican Party is ready by 2010 and able to grab back control of the House, so much the better for American politics--and maybe so much the better for Obama's presidency. And in the meantime, I'm certainly rooting for smart and decent Hill Republicans (admittedly a minority) to hold onto their seats to lead the rebuilding toward another era of soundly divided government.

Jacob T. Levy is the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University.

By Jacob T. Levy

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