Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Losing Control: The Intraparty Consequences of Divided Government

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Losing Control: The Intraparty Consequences of Divided Government

Article excerpt

The divided government literature has focused primarily on two hypotheses: that divided government changes the productivity of government and that it creates increased hostility between the parties. (1) Mayhew's work (1991), which compares the quantity of legislation produced during times of unified versus divided party control, is the cornerstone of the first approach. Although Mayhew found little basis for concern about divided party governance, other scholars, advocating alterations to Mayhew's methods, have at times come to contradictory conclusions (Kelley 1993; Edwards, Barrett, and Peake 1997; Thorson 1998; Binder 1999). This squabbling aside, one fact remains: one dominant method in divided government scholarship measures the quantity of legislation produced by alternative party arrangements. This emphasis on legislative productivity naturally leads scholars to quantitative tools in divided government studies, to the exclusion of more historical accounts.

Recently, a few scholars have departed from the dominant quantitative methods in divided government studies by investigating the tenor, rather than the productivity, of different party control arrangements. These students of divided government have abandoned the quantitative search for productivity implications in favor of hypotheses that emphasize the tendency toward interparty battles during divided party control. Ginsberg and Shefter noted (1999), for instance, that the divided party model tends toward interinstitutional acrimony and, subsequently, an inability of either party to govern.

The case studies below further the work of Ginsberg and Shefter (1999) by specifying the process by which divided government leads to acrimony and by looking for the acrimony in a different location. My central argument is that divided party government creates an incentive for the party in control of Congress to exploit issues that are contentious within the president's party. The party controlling Congress finds in divided government an opportunity to use policy as a wedge, exposing the divisions within the president's party and solidifying its commitment to its own constituencies through symbolic politics. Benefits of this strategy can be both electoral and policy oriented. My argument furthers Ginsberg and Shefter's theory of conflict by specifying the tension in divided government they observe. It also challenges Ginsberg and Shefter by arguing that the tension revealed in divided government often occurs within the president's party, not between the parties, as they argue.

The Theory of Unified Party Rule, Revisited

It is a widely held tenet that the political parties smooth out the tensions inherent in our three-branch, federalist system of government (Sundquist 1988). Although at first repudiated by the founders and the earliest American presidents, political parties have been viewed in this century as an essential glue in a fundamentally centripetal system. In theory, the party system can provide common philosophical and policy goals, as well as electoral incentives, across natural institutional divides.

In practice, the American parties have always had serious internal divisions (Burns 1963). In a two-party system, perfect internal ideological coherence may be nothing more than political fancy. The parties are simply too vast and diverse to inspire consistent internal harmony. Still, unified party control provides an electoral incentive for party leadership to downplay, or even actively avoid, those issues on which the party is divided to preserve the appearance of cohesion. In the interest of electoral success and a meaningful party label, party members find powerful incentives to downplay intraparty conflict. Conversely, it is this article's contention that divided government's ability to incite rancor lies in part in its ability to create opportunity for intraparty conflict to emerge. In a divided government system, the dominant congressional party has the authority to force public consideration of those issues most sensitive to the president's party. …

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