The trifecta of national politics is for a candidate to win the
White House and help his party win control of Congress on
But is it "game over" for a president when the other team
controls the House, the Senate, or both? Not necessarily. Turns out,
presidents don't always get what they want when their party has a
majority on Capitol Hill or fail, when that majority is lost.
Moreover, divided government can be the mother of legislative
invention, forcing presidents to find common ground with a hostile
Congress, if they can.
Past presidencies offer hints for dealing with a Congress of a
Numbers on 'our side' do not equal control
President Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II hero, was swept
into office winning all but nine states and helping Republicans take
control of the House and Senate on his coattails.
But rather than line up behind the new president, the GOP
majority attacked his nominees, his legislative priorities on
defense spending, and his presidential powers in foreign policy.
When Democrats won back control of the House and Senate in 1954
and kept it through the Eisenhower administration "it was a
blessing in disguise," wrote Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward
Smith. In short, Eisenhower made a tactical shift to the Democrats.
Born in Texas, he developed close relations with House Speaker Sam
Rayburn and Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson. The "three
Texans" met weekly in joint strategy sessions that produced the
Interstate Highway System and the St. Lawrence Seaway, expanded
Social Security, raised the minimum wage, and established the
Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
President Jimmy Carter (D) a former Georgia governor who
campaigned as a Washington "outsider" and tried to govern that way,
too never established a working relationship with the Democrat-
controlled Congress. Lawmakers complained that he lectured them and
piled on more priorities than could be handled. Carter's agenda
barely registered on Capitol Hill.
Divided party control of Congress is not fatal
President Ronald Reagan's 1980 election helped put Republicans in
power in the Senate for the first time since 1953, but he never had
a unified GOP majority in Congress to back his agenda. Reagan did
not push the GOP's social agenda. Instead, he worked with some 40
conservative Democrats, such as then-Rep. Phil Gramm (D) of Texas, a
member of the House Budget Committee who became a virtual surrogate
for Reagan's "supply side" tax cuts and other economic proposals.
President Richard Nixon never had a Republican majority in either
house. But he needed a legislative record to run on and made broad
overtures to Democrats on issues ranging from welfare reform to a
national health insurance partnership. …