Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Split Decision

You know, history really does repeat itself. Not precisely, though. You have to look for it, but patterns certainly seem to emerge.

More than two years ago — when Democrats had held Congress for a little more than a year and Republican George W. Bush was in his final year as president — I wrote about the virtue of divided government.

On that occasion, I was offering my take on a column written by political analyst Charlie Cook for the National Journal, in which he also wrote about the disparity between the popular vote and the electoral vote. While I do believe the Electoral College should be scrapped — or, at the very least, revised — that's not what I want to discuss in this post.

In April 2008 — which, it is worth noting, was several months before the economic meltdown virtually guaranteed Democratic victories that fall — Cook said both parties had "self–destructive tendencies." If either controlled both the legislative and executive branches of government, it was like a "ticking time bomb; it's only a matter of time before it explodes and the party loses, and loses big."

That time appears to be at hand for Democrats who were so cocky after the 2008 elections. Everyone seems to be in agreement on that point. The disagreement, at this stage, centers on how extensive the losses will be — whether the Democrats will, in Cook's words, "lose big."

I can picture their spinmeisters, already working on the party's excuses for whatever lies ahead. I'm sure racism will be a prominent one. It's a very handy excuse for this president, one that hasn't been available to any of his predecessors — although I'm sure some variant of it has been applicable to a few (i.e., John F. Kennedy, who was not the first Catholic presidential nominee but was the first Catholic to be elected — and could conceivably have used anti–Catholic bigotry if he had lived to run for a second term).

But, even though racism is likely to be used as an excuse for congressional losses, is it valid? In some instances, perhaps it is. But not in most.

Well, two years ago, I wrote something that I still believe: "I've seen more efficiency under a divided government. Each side gets some of what it wants sometimes. But when one party controls the White House and the Congress, things get sloppy, inefficient — and expensive."

I've seen nothing in the last two years that refutes that. Precisely the opposite, in fact. Divided government promotes the art of compromise. Everyone gets involved. No one feels left out — and, consequently, feels the need to obstruct everything the majority tries to do because you just might need some of those folks on the next issue — and you have a realistic chance of winning over some of them — and you don't want to risk alienating them.

When voters elected Barack Obama president and, at the same time, expanded Democrats' majorities in both houses of Congress, there was much rejoicing.

I wasn't sure what to make of it, but I had serious doubts about the collective wisdom. In the aftermath of the economic meltdown, I felt the voters were having a (probably justifiable) tantrum against Republican rule, and I felt torn over the prospect of installing a one–party government to replace another one–party government.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am second to no one in my utter disdain for the George W. Bush administration (well, both Bush presidencies, actually, but let's stick to the most recent one).

And the only electoral decision in which all voters participate is the election of the president. Senators and representatives are chosen, as always, by states and districts.

No "decision" was made in 2008 to give huge majorities to the Democrats, just as no decision was made nearly a decade before that to turn over control of both the White House and the Congress to the Republicans. It's just how it worked out.

And I worried in 2008 that it would make things worse. Democrats seemed to have forgotten how disenfranchised they felt when Republicans controlled the national debate — and how that led the Democrats to become more energized about taking back what they had lost.

In such an adversarial environment, neither side ever seems to be willing to budge even an inch. Isn't that what we've seen in Washington in the last 18 months? Isn't that what we saw in Washington five years ago, in first the Terri Schiavo affair and then the Hurricane Katrina experience?

Not sayin' either side was right or wrong. Just sayin'.

As I say, I felt torn on Election Night. On the one hand, I felt that someone whose very existence would be politically sensitive — such as the first black president — would need to have many members of his party in Congress in order to get anything accomplished.

On the other hand, I have seen one–party rule at several times in my life, and it never really seems to work. The party that is in power always gets too carried away with itself and sees "mandates" where they frequently don't exist. That lends an aura of credibility to everything they do.

And there is often a sense that the party in power knows best, and that clearly seems to have been a problem in the first couple of years of the Obama presidency.

Poll after poll after poll after poll has shown that Americans are worried about unemployment.

I'm going to repeat that, with added emphasis, because I really believe it is important.

Poll after poll after poll after poll has shown that Americans are worried about unemployment.

Now, you may argue — and not without some justification — that the opinions expressed in polls are not written in stone — and they aren't. But, when a topic consistently lands in the top spot of polls about the most pressing problems facing America today, that seems like, at the very least, a hint that it's something that Americans want to address. And a lot of them really want to address the jobs issue.

As George Carlin used to say, even in a fake democracy, people ought to get what they want once in awhile if only to feed the illusion that they're really in charge. In this case, they ain't been getting it — unless Obama and the Democrats were doing things behind the scenes to promote job creation while they were publicly barnstorming the country for health care reform.

But, if that is what they were doing, they missed an opportunity to get some visible credit for their efforts — credit they might wish they had when the voters go to the polls in November. As it is, the Democrats seem to be hoping — like Herbert Hoover at the dawn of the Great Depression — that the market will correct itself. That's not likely to be a winning strategy in 2010.

Because, unless something really dramatic happens, it is unlikely that we will see the kinds of improvements that will reverse the Democrats' fortunes in November's midterms.

It isn't that the voters blame the Democrats — but it would be terrific if they would stop obsessing about blame and focus on strategies for encouraging job creation. The five–figure job gains we've seen lately would have been great a few decades ago. They might even have been marginally acceptable a few years ago. But, since the end of 2007, we've seen waves of six–figure job losses that seemed like they would never end.

And they've left a path of destruction in their wake that is staggering.

As the voters see it, the Democrats are the ones who are in charge. If the voters aren't convinced that they're thinking outside the box in an all–out pursuit of an answer, they'll look for that leadership elsewhere. The Republicans may not be exactly what they want — but what other option do they have?

Well, anyway, I started thinking about all this when I was reading an article today by another political analyst for whom I have a great deal of respect, Michael Barone, one of the authors of what has been the best political reference for nearly 40 years, the "Almanac of American Politics," which is published by the National Journal every other year.

Barone also contributes to the Washington Examiner, where today he suggests that this year's midterms may resemble the ones in 1966.

"Some compare 2010 to 1994, when Republicans picked up 52 House seats and won majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades," Barone writes. "Others compare this year to 1982, when Democrats picked up 26 House seats and recaptured effective control of the House two years after Ronald Reagan was elected president."

As I say, though, Barone's focus today is on 1966, two years after Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats swept the elections of 1964. 1966, Barone writes, "was a year when a Democratic president's war in Asia was starting to cause unease and some opposition within his own party, as is happening now."

And, he continues, "it was a year of recoil against the big government programs of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. The 89th Congress, with 2–1 Democratic majorities, had passed Medicare, federal aid to education, anti–poverty and other landmark legislation."

The key to Republicans' success in 1966, Barone suggests, was that they "actually won the popular vote for the House in the North (defined as the other 36 states) by a 51% to 48% majority. They have only done so since in three elections, in 1968 (a virtual carbon copy of 1966 in House races), in their breakthrough year of 1994 and in the post–9/11 year of 2002."

Recent poll results indicate, Barone continues, that it could happen again this year. Generic polls asking voters which party they would support in their local House race show "Republicans ahead by a historically unprecedented margin."

And, writes Barone, "[i]f those numbers hold, and if they turn out to underpredict Republican performance in the popular vote, as they have in the past, that could mean that Republicans would win a popular vote plurality or majority in the North."

Can't happen, you say? Hmmm, tell that to Massachusetts Sen. Martha Coakley and then tell me what her response was. Coakley was an exception, you say? A terrible candidate? OK. Gotcha. How about checking back with me in a month or so, after most states have held their primaries, and tell me how things are looking?

We should also have a couple more jobless reports in by that time.

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