Divided Government: The Way Forward (Yet Again)

Sam Tanenhaus has written a fine essay on the partisan turmoil often underlying periods recalled for their towering political figures and bipartisan unity.  Looking back, the siege mentality that set in between Congressional Republicans and President Clinton after the 1994 midterm elections resulted in effectively-functioning checks and balances (aside from the Republicans’ cynical and actually self-defeating impeachment investigations), significant policy reform such as the 1996 Welfare Reform that both parties want to enhance rather than demonize, and (sigh…) a balanced budget.  But Tanenhaus’ essay isn’t about the Clinton era, or the Reagan era, or the Nixon era.  It’s about the Eisenhower years, and it’s eye-opening.

While the Eisenhower years are cast as the “good old days,” they sound like they were charged with all the terror that Modernity run amok had to offer.  The country (excluding the military, honors to President Truman) was quite segregated and black Americans were still widely-disenfranchised of their 15th Amendment rights.  In this period in particular, the ideology of “proper roles” for the sexes was at a level most of us would call inhumane.  Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist paranoia had Americans afraid in ways they never should have been.

There’s a lot to dislike about the current political environment, of course.  Unemployment remains high at an (official, undercounted) 9.6%; the Republican candidate for the Senate in Nevada can presently cast the long-established Muslim community of Dearborn, Michigan as a militant takeover of that city and remain ahead in the polls; meanwhile some on the left hope that Angle beats Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, because he hasn’t pushed some of the progressive legislation they’ve expected in the Senate (the open fact that he probably sacrificed the balance of his political career for health care reform notwithstanding).  The point is that split-partisan control of the Presidency and Congress might be the corrective we’ve been looking for to produce needed policy innovation.  Jonathan Rauch has claimed divided government is the corrective to ideological parties for years, and not surprisingly has returned to this theme this spring.

As discussed in a previous post, the Liberal Ironist thinks the House Republicans’ “Pledge to America” was near-pitch-perfect for them politically; it focused almost exclusively on issues of Federalism and market reforms, and it was ambiguous only to the extent that they could advance ideological or pragmatic versions of their legislative agenda.  The Republicans’ best strategy would be to try to govern: They need to decide early-on whether to develop a working relationship with either the President or the 60-plus most-moderate House Democrats AND 12 moderate Senate Democrats.  To negotiate with the President to reduce the scope of the Federal Government would offer the most-stable relationship–though that would likely be harder to frame for activist supporters and some Tea Party freshmen.

Lead agency for crafting new bills will definitely shift to the House, but if the Republicans don’t try to build a working coalition that includes some Democrats, they won’t have legislation to show for it: Barack Obama will still be President until 2012, plenty of time for his approval ratings to pick up if the employment situation improves, and the Republicans are projected to be 12 votes short of being able to break filibusters in the Senate.  A hostile approach, ironically, would probably weaken Congress’s policy influence further to the relative gain of the President and the Supreme Court, which would shape existing laws and institutions ad-hoc or by reaction.  In short, there is a way forward for good governance here, as there was in the mid-late 1990s; the Liberal Ironist thinks the way to do it would be for Republicans to make a Bill Clinton out of the man already in the White House.

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