Running against Congress is a most dangerous game

Cokie Roberts

September 01, 1992|By Cokie Roberts

A WEEK ago Saturday, after the Republican convention, President Bush traveled to Woodstock in Georgia, home state of Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler.

The president told the crowd assembled on Main Street, "I stand for the balanced-budget amendment. Wyche Fowler is against it. I stand for the line-item veto. Wyche Fowler is against it. I stand for those who stood at Desert Storm and he opposed me . . . It's fine to talk one way in downtown Woodstock and vote differently in Washington, but we cannot have that anymore."

Mr. Bush claims he's following Harry Truman's example, campaigning across America against Congress, but a more recent presidential model might prove more instructive.

In 1986 Ronald Reagan crisscrossed the country imploring his followers to "cast one last vote for the Gipper" by re-electing the Republicans they sent to the Senate on his coattails in 1980.

Instead, the Democratic challengers, despite being heavily outspent by the Republicans, edged out enough victories for their party to re-capture the Senate.

Mr. Reagan might have saved himself the trouble, and the blow to his prestige, by recalling the results two years earlier: He won re-election by a landslide, but 22 senators won their states by wider margins than he.

Senators then stopped worrying about the president's popularity and charted their own legislative courses.

As early as 1982 voters let Mr. Reagan know they might love him, but they wanted to check his policies. That year they threw 26 Republicans out of the House, depriving the president of his working majority.

From then on the Reagan years were marked more by compromise than confrontation.

For much of the last half-century, Americans have chosen divided government for good reason: We like it. As endless commissions look for ways to make government more efficient and political scientists sing the praises of the parliamentary system, voters shout something very different.

We don't trust government, they declare, and we don't want to give either party a free hand. They take the already formidable institutional checks and balances one step further by imposing a political check between the executive and legislative branches.

Bemoaners of the gridlock of divided government are convinced that the voters don't know what they're doing, that the system is somehow rigged by the strength of incumbency or redistricting or campaign contributions, that there's no place for common sense.

I have a good deal more respect for the American voter than that and I have the benefit of data, both scientific and anecdotal, on my side.

When pollsters ask, is it better for the same party to control both Congress and the presidency, usually no more than one-third of the respondents answer yes. Even right now, with all the attacks on Congress, that figure has only climbed to 43 percent, according to a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll taken in early August.

And in hundreds of interviews all over the country in even-numbered years I have found voters readily explaining that they split their tickets with malice aforethought, consciously curbing what they see as the excesses of both parties.

If the man Mr. Bush succeeded learned that the hard way, so did the man Mr. Bush's role model, Harry Truman, succeeded. In 1938 Franklin Roosevelt, frustrated by Congress' refusal to give the executive branch more power and pack the Supreme Court, decided to purge conservative Democrats from Congress.

He traveled the South, campaigning for candidates running against sitting senators of his own party, often sharing a platform with incumbents he opposed. One who came in for particular humiliation was Walter George of Georgia.

After George and every other senator Roosevelt tried to defeat returned to office, the president found he had an even harder time getting his programs passed.

When Democratic leaders met to plot strategy, one member, according to legend, clucked, "You know the president is his own worst enemy," which brought the retort from George, "Not as long as I'm alive, he's not."

Should Mr. Bush be re-elected with a Democratic Congress, should the voters again decide that their fears of one-party control outweigh their frustration with gridlocked government, then Mr. Fowler is likely to share the sentiments of his Georgian predecessor and Mr. Bush may find himself wishing he had not said some of the things he's saying today.

Cokie Roberts is a correspondent for ABC News and an analyst for National Public Radio.

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