THE REPUBLICAN PARTY'S 1996 Christmas card, sent out a few weeks after the presidential election returned Bill Clinton to the White House, displayed a joyful elephant seated in front of a Christmas tree, opening a gift-wrapped replica of the U.S. Capitol. "Oh boy!" the pachyderm exclaims. "Congress again!"
Indeed, divided government is back with us -- but with a dramatic difference from its previous heyday, when, for a dozen years starting in 1980, the Republicans controlled the White House while the Democrats dominated the House of Representatives and, half the time, the Senate, too. The explanation commonly offered for that arrangement was that voters wanted Democrats in charge of Congress, where they could do what they did best: hand out the benefits of government. However, only a Republican president, so the theory went, could be trusted to preside over the Cold War, keep the economy on track, and stand up for the traditional values of the middle class.
"Voters felt that Congress would take care of people at home and the president would take care of the country abroad," Fred Steeper, the GOP pollster who worked for both the Reagan and Bush presidential campaigns, told me. Or, as political scientist Walter Dean Burnham more elegantly put it, "Americans tend to be operational liberals and ideological conservatives." Divided government thus seemed to accommodate and reflect the fundamental conflict underlying American politics: the tension between the resentment and suspicion of government enshrined in the American tradition and the citizenry's more recent but nonetheless profound dependence on government to help cope with the exigencies of life. As cynics contended, the partisan split in control of the Congress and the White House