By Rust, Michael
Insight on the News , Vol. 12, No. 47
On Election Day the people put Republicans in charge of Capitol Hill and gave Democrats control of the White House. Will it work or are we in for more gridlock and bitter confrontation. It worked before.
When Newt Gingrich accepted the nomination of House Republicans for a second term as speaker, he sounded a conciliatory note. "We have an absolute moral obligation to make this system work," Gingrich told the House Republican caucus. "We bear the unusual burden of reaching out to a Democratic president and saying, `Together we are in fact going to find common ground."'
"Unusual" hardly does justice to the occasion. The last Republican to serve consecutive terms as speaker was Nicholas Longworth of Ohio -- Theodore Roosevelt's son-in-law. The last time a GOP congressional majority and a Democratic president confronted each other, Harry S Truman was in the White House. And the last time a GOP Congress was elected with a Democratic president, the Republicans'-nemesis in the White House was Woodrow Wilson.
But while congressional Republican majorities still may be something of a novelty, divided government -- where one party controls the White House and the other controls Capitol Hill -- no longer is as strange as it once was. From George Washington through Truman, the same party controlled both Congress and the presidency 73 percent of the time. From the ascension of Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 to the 1992 defeat of George Bush, that figure dropped to 31 percent. And during the last four years, Bill Clinton has dealt with both Democratic and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.
Perhaps the simplest answers are the best. "I think the American people are schizophrenic," laughs Richard Norton Smith, the director of the Gerald Ford Library. "We simultaneously complain abut the size, cost, intrusiveness of government, and yet demand benefits that seem to be inconsistent with those complaints." But Smith's jocularity raises an important point. No matter what Washington pundits say, U.S. voters seem to have little trouble with the concept of a divided government. What's more, divided government does not necessarily mean gridlock.
"We've had five years or so of real restiveness on the part of voters who haven't been terribly happy with what they've seen," political scientist Norman Ornstein tells Insight. "The patience level has been really low and they've been basically searching for different combinations to see what would work." Bush went from a 91 percent approval rating in the polls to 38 percent approval in barely more than a year. Then, "we threw out a divided government process we had had for 12 years that voters felt had just run out its string. It took them less than two years to decide that what they replaced it with -- united government under Democrats -- was worse."
This led to the 1994 GOP takeover and the subsequent jockeying around the federal budget between White House and Capitol Hill. At the beginning of this election year, voters seemed disgusted with the impasse and ready to vent their spleen at the polls. But by the end of the year, the potential watershed election had decomposed into a slow-moving swamp as voters seemed willing to accept the miasma of that status quo. "For the first time in five years" voters are displaying "a tentative sense that, well, maybe this isn't working so badly," says Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Of course, that could change rapidly. In the past, divided government usually was rectified by the triumph of one side of the division or the other. In the early years of the republic, when the runner-up in the Electoral College became vice president, the executive branch itself could be divided, such as when Federalist John Adams found himself with his personal and ideological rival, Thomas Jefferson, as vice president. The Founders didn't anticipate the rise of parties, says historian Forrest McDonald of the University of Alabama, "and then when parties did rise, the instigators of the parties -- being Jefferson and Madison -- blamed it on [Alexander] Hamilton and Hamilton's programs which they were opposing. …