The opinion pages at the NY Times are lighting up with more analysis of the wild swings from one political party to another in recent elections.
Some argue that America lacks the political leadership to confront pressing challenges and that the large swing to Democrats in 2008 and then to Republicans in 2010 is a desperate search by the voting public to find this leadership.
The Rauch piece provides a complimentary, but different, perspective and is especially interesting. It suggests that the polarization of the parties along ideological lines over the past 20 years has made single-party control of Washington particularly unstable because voters in the minority react negatively to the policies of the majority party. Divided government, although messy in appearance, he argues, may be the more stable and effective form of federal governance for getting things done.
Democrats have, at least temporarily, blown the opportunity they were given to connect with the industrial Midwest. Voters in this region face structural problems, not cyclical ones. Intensely suspicious of government, they are nonetheless casting about for somebody, anybody, who can revive their towns and neighborhoods.
…American politics are volatile because nobody has an answer for these people. They will remain volatile until somebody finds one.
It would be easy to misread the results of Tuesday’s elections, and it looks as if the leaders of both parties are doing exactly that.
Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are offering voters the kind of change that they seem so desperately to want. We’re getting mind-numbing chatter about balanced budgets and smaller government and whether Mitch McConnell and his gang can chase President Obama out of the White House in 2012.
What voters want is leadership that will help them through an economic nightmare and fix a country that has been pitched into a state of sharp decline. They long for leaders with a clear and compelling vision of a better America and a road map for getting there. That leadership has long been AWOL. The hope in the tumultuous elections of 2008 was that it would come from Mr. Obama and the Democrats, but that hope, after just two years, is on life support.
Tuesday’s outcome was the result of voters, still hungry for change, who either switched in anger from the Democrats to the Republicans or, out of a deep sense of disappointment, stayed home.
…Our leaders in Washington seem entirely out of touch with the needs, the hopes, the fears and the anxieties of the millions of Americans who are out of work, who are struggling with their mortgages or home foreclosures, who are skimping on needed medication in order to keep food on the table, and who lie awake at night worrying about what the morning will bring. No one even dares mention the poor.
What this election tells me is that real leadership will have to come from elsewhere, from outside of Washington, perhaps from elected officials in statehouses or municipal buildings that are closer to the people, from foundations and grass-roots organizations, from the labor movement and houses of worship and community centers.
You can’t win an election without a coherent message. Obama, despite his administration’s genuine achievements, didn’t have one. The good news — for him, if not necessarily a straitened country — is that the G.O.P. doesn’t have one either. This explains the seemingly irrational calculus of Tuesday’s exit polls. Voters gave Democrats and Republicans virtually identical favorability ratings while voting for the G.O.P. They gave Obama a slightly higher approval rating than either political party even as they punished him. This is a snapshot of a whiplashed country that (understandably) doesn’t know whose butt to kick first.
…In the 1946 midterms, the unpopular and error-prone rookie president Harry Truman, buffeted by a different set of economic dislocations, watched his party lose both chambers of Congress (including 54 seats in the House) to a G.O.P. that then moved steadily to the right in its determination to cut government spending and rip down the New Deal safety net. Two years after this Democratic wipeout, despite a hostile press and a grievously divided party, Truman roared back, in part by daring the Republican Congress to enact its reactionary plans. He won against all odds, as David McCullough writes in “Truman,” because “there was something in the American character that responded to a fighter.”
A GRAND victory for Republicans in the 2010 midterm election? Yes, of course. But also no. In all three of the most recent earthshaking midterm elections — 1994, 2006 and now 2010 — the same candidate won: divided government.
…Divided government comes about when one party controls the White House and the other controls either or both chambers of Congress. Washington has been split between the parties for more than 21 of the past 30 years (the exceptions being 1993 and 1994, part of 2001, 2003 to 2006, and the past two years). The middle four of President George W. Bush’s eight years represented the longest stint of unified government in that span. Not at all coincidentally, they also saw his party’s support nosedive.
Consistently, when either party, never mind which, obtains total control, its popularity collapses and the voters take the first available opportunity to bring in the other side.
This is a relatively recent phenomenon. From the Great Depression until the Ronald Reagan years, the public had no problem with keeping Democrats in charge of Congress for decades, no matter which party held the White House. In those days, however, both parties were ideologically broad coalitions. Northeastern Republicans stood to the left of Southern Democrats, for example. Regardless of which party was in power, ideological diversity was assured, and like-minded politicians worked across party lines.
That changed, and changed in a big way, as the parties re-sorted themselves along ideological lines. Today, almost all Democrats are to the left of all Republicans. The result is that the system behaves very differently when one party is in control than when they share. So differently, in fact, that you can fairly say that the country has one Constitution with two distinct modes of operation.
In Mode 1 — unified government — the minority party in Washington, shut out of power, has every incentive to make the majority’s life difficult, and does so. Its partisans, with no stake in whether anything gets done in Washington, treat the government as if it were under control of an invading army.
…In Mode 2 — divided government — the dynamic is reversed. Both parties, responsible for governing, have a stake in success. Forced to negotiate and compromise, they drag policy toward the center, allowing moderates to feel represented instead of ignored. Most important, the country itself becomes more governable and meaningful laws stand a likelier chance of passage…
Photo credit: Stephen Little
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