Divided Government and Democratic Presidents: Truman and Clinton Compared

By Conley, Richard S. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Divided Government and Democratic Presidents: Truman and Clinton Compared


Conley, Richard S., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Little consensus exists about the consequences of divided partisan control of American national institutions. Many scholars argue that with opposite parties controlling the presidency and Congress, the incentive for executive-legislative cooperation on policy issues is reduced (Cox and Kernell 1991, 4-8). Proponents of a "responsible party government" system, like James Sundquist (1989), posit that unified control of the presidency and Congress is vital for presidential policy leadership. They are quick to point out, as Davidson (1988) reminds us, that "eras of true legislative harmony, while few and far between in this country, have always occurred when a single party controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue" (p. 18).

Yet, empirical studies of the impact of divided government have produced decidedly mixed results because of scholars' different research foci. McCubbins (1991) finds evidence that divided government contributed to the budget deficits of the 1980s that have only recently come under control. On the question of presidential success in Congress, roll call victory ratios are conditioned by the size and unity of party factions in Congress, with "minority" presidents' positions more likely to fail when the opposition majority party is cohesive (Bond and Fleisher 1990; Oppenheimer 1996). Adding to the controversy is David Mayhew's (1991) extensive treatment of legislative productivity. Gauging the amount of innovative legislation adopted in the postwar period, Mayhew finds that the number of significant laws adopted remains relatively constant despite the partisan configuration of institutions. But reversing the question to analyze significant legislation that did not pass, Edwards, Barrett, and Peake (1997) find that divided government leads to more legislative failures.

This research adds to the debate about the effect of divided government by examining executive-legislative relations under Truman and Clinton after midterm elections reversed party control of Congress. Truman and Clinton share the dubious distinction of being the only two Democratic presidents to face Republican majorities in Congress since World War II. Both had activist agendas, began their terms with a majority of Democrats in Congress, and suffered dramatic reversals of fortune. Political pundits were quick to draw analogies between Truman and Clinton, not only following the 1994 midterm elections but also during the 1996 campaign as Clinton mounted a significant comeback. But in the legislative realm, there is much more than meets the eye. Whereas Truman attempted and failed to obstruct the Grand Old Party (GOP) agenda, Clinton was much more effective in his ability to force compromise from Republican leaders and halt the Contract with America.

This comparative case study of Truman and Clinton focuses on two main hypotheses about presidential-congressional relations from 1947-48 and 1995-96. The first is that in both periods, the new Republican majorities in Congress inverted the expected norm of presidential control of the legislative agenda. The 80th and 104th Congresses were characterized by congressionally led policy innovation that ran counter to the "FDR model" of a strong president leading Congress. By deconstructing David Mayhew's "significant" laws in the 80th and 104th Congress, this research shows that few of the innovative laws in either period originated with presidential proposals--a clear-cut impact of divided government that has been overlooked.

The second hypothesis is that the structure of voting coalitions in Congress placed Clinton in a much stronger position to influence legislative outcomes than Truman. Prior quantitative studies of postwar executive-legislative relations have excluded Truman because of problems associated with identifying his legislative stands (Edwards 1980, 1989; Peterson 1990; Bond and Fleisher 1990). I construct a proximate measure of Truman's roll call success rate and congressional support for his legislative positions in the 80th Congress, which I compare with Clinton's in the 104th Congress. …

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