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The Folly of Divided Government

November 10, 1996|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips, publisher of American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustrations of American Politics" (Little Brown)

WASHINGTON — Quick: Name the last U.S. national election in which voters, grudgingly, sullenly, handed two of the top three offices in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave to men they told exit-poll takers they disapproved of or distrusted--President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

How absurd, then, to hear political analysts describe Nov. 5 as a "status quo" election reflecting basic American contentment. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Not with a majority of Americans questioning their leaders' integrity and calling the country "off track." Not with the lowest ratio of citizens voting on Election Day since 1924--especially because such voter nonparticipation has been a revealing litmus test of weaknesses in the system.

The Washington of Clinton and Gingrich is less a mountain of national pride and history than a moral molehill. The electorate has turned to a division of government--a Democratic president facing a Republican Congress--that has no record of succeeding, because there's no other choice but to have the two branches watch each other.

For the first time in U.S. history, the Democratic president and the GOP speaker both have special counsel or appointed investigators looking into questions about their ethics and integrity. Both will probably survive, but every downtown Washington restaurant at lunch time has a table or two of rumormongers discussing the implications if one or both do not.

It's possible the country can get through this new pattern of divided government if America's economic and international luck holds. Then it'll be enough for the Republicans to huff and the Democrats to puff, together keeping the ship of state off the rocks--if not under full steam. But if there is a crisis, whether scandal-generated, money-linked or war-triggered, then the potential ineffectiveness of a Democratic president facing a GOP Congress could come front-and-center.

The notion that this is an effective framework for national governance has a basis in hope, but not in history. The Republican Congress versus Democratic president face-off we have just seen in Washington was a failure during its first 16 months--until the GOP realized its reckless assaults on the federal safety net (Medicare, education and the like) and attempts to shut down the government had been a public-relations disaster.

This summer, however, the GOP's worried congressional wolves put on sheep's clothing, orchestrated a success or two with welfare reform and immigration law changes and prayed their woolly outfits would work through Election Day. But they probably wouldn't have worked--mid-October polls showed a 5-10 point Democratic edge in generic voting for Congress--until Clinton's sleazy foreign fund-raising and influence-peddling schemes became a fat target for both Bob Dole and Ross Perot in the last two weeks of the race. With Clinton's overall ethics already suspect, his election support declined by about five points--with Dole and Perot more or less splitting the changeover. Democratic congressional candidates probably lost about 2-3 points nationwide, which almost certainly saved the House for the GOP.

Which is how the United States wound up choosing two more years of an implausible division of government. At this point, some readers will be saying, "Wait a minute, haven't we had divided government for most of the time since the 1950s?" Yes, but that involved a GOP president, usually a moderate conservative, dealing with a Democratic Congress--often dominated by a coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans. Even GOP presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon worried that full-fledged GOP Congesses were too extreme and preferred bipartisan centrists. The first 16 months of the 104th Congress in 1995-96 proved this.

Since the Republican vs. Democratic fight began in the 1850s, there have been only three examples, prior to 1995-96, of a split between a Democratic president and a Republican legislature: the 54th Congress in 1895-96; the 66th Congress in 1919-20, and the 80th Congress in 1947-48. Each time, the next election got rid of this artificial, unproductive division, which usually stemmed from a mid-term rejection of the Democratic chief executive, and opted for a government where the same party controlled both the White House and Congress.

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