Get ready for more divided government

Whether Democrats manage to hold onto the Senate or not, expect continued gridlock

September 18, 2012|Thomas F. Schaller

Divided government has become a too-common feature of American national politics.

In the six decades following the 1952 election, unified partisan control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress has been rare: the eight years of the Kennedy-Johnson era; all four years of Jimmy Carter's presidency; the first two of Bill Clinton's; the middle four years of the George W. Bush administration; and Barack Obama's first two years. That's 20 years out of 60 — a third of the time.

One wonders why the rise of divided government, coupled with the public's declining faith in the two major parties to work together to solve problems, doesn't compel voters to simply put one party in charge of the whole government for some reasonable period and then, if unsatisfied, give the other a try.

Instead, a 2010 Gallup poll showed that 69 percent of Americans either prefer divided government (30 percent) or say it makes no difference (39 percent). But similar majorities complain when partisan bickering trumps problem-solving. You can vote for divided government or can complain about Washington gridlock; you can't do both.

Americans sent divided governments to Washington in both 2006 and 2010, and will likely do so again this November. Since the conventions, President Obama's lead over Republican nominee Mitt Romney has widened, and almost no sane analyst thinks the GOP will lose the U.S. House this November. So buckle up for two more years of stalemated, sometimes ugly governance in the nation's capital.

That said, the Senate results may provide the only excitement on election night. Cook Political Report handicapper Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate elections as closely and sagaciously as anyone inside the Beltway, recently downgraded the Republicans' chances of capturing the Senate a tad, from 50 percent to 45 percent. Still, that makes Senate control a toss-up.

And that's because there are several toss-up races, including three featuring embattled rookies in "M"-lettered states the Democrats won in 2006. (Sorry, Marylanders — as usual, the Old Line State isn't among them: Republican Daniel Bongino has roughly the same chance of unseating freshman Ben Cardin as I do replacing Ray Lewis as middle linebacker for the Ravens.)

Moving west to east, Montana rookie Democrat Jon Tester is fending off a challenge from House Rep. Denny Rehberg. In most states, House members are disadvantaged because they represent only a sliver of the state. But not Mr. Rehberg, who has held Montana's lone, at-large House seat since 2002. (He was one of two representatives before the state lost its other House seat after the 2000 Census.) Although Montana has been a bright spot for Democrats recently, Senator Tester could be a victim of Obama fatigue.

Like Montana, Missouri almost flipped from red to blue in the 2008 presidential race. There, the contest between first-term Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican Rep. Todd Akin flipped from Republican-favorable to Democratic-leaning thanks to Mr. Akin's "legitimate rape" comment last month. An early endorser of Mr. Obama in the 2008 presidential primary, Ms. McCaskill could survive presidential fatigue because her opponent self-destructed.

Finally, there's the Massachusetts seat the late Ted Kennedy easily held in 2006, but which Democrats lost in a 2010 special election to a very talented moderate, Republican Scott Brown. This race is being watched (and funded) nationally more than others because Democratic challenger and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren is a candidate liberals love and conservatives hate.

If the GOP recaptures the Senate and Mr. Obama wins a second term, the president would face even greater resistance from Capitol Hill Republicans than he did his first term (as difficult as that is to imagine). If Democrats hold on, however, it may signal that the tea party-led GOP countermovement to the Obama presidency has stalled.

Control of the U.S. Senate alone won't produce unified government, but it could bear upon the ability of a re-elected House majority and President Obama to work together. Whichever party emerges this November with a Senate majority — and it's quite possible the chamber will be split, as it was in 2001 and 2002 — the inability of the two national parties to solve major national problems is almost certain to continue for another biennium.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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