Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Please don’t lecture us that divided government is something “we like”

Given the sinking prospects for success next week, more and more Republicans are arguing in favor of divided government – McCain seeing the inevitability of a Democratic Congress argues we should put a Republican (him) in the White House and Republican members of Congress seeing an inevitable Democratic Obama victory for the Presidency argue for a Republican Congress. Of course, the Republicans didn’t see the wisdom of divided government when they controlled all three branches of government for six of the past eight years and had an effective check on Democrats in Congress during the past two years. Now with the country involved in two wars and facing a growing financial crisis they are preaching gridlock in Washington. Not surprisingly, the American people are not convinced. According to Andrew Romano in Newsweek:
Everyone loves checks and balances--in theory. But after eight years of widely reviled Republican rule, it's not clear that voters automatically dread a Democratic regime. In fact, according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll, 49 percent would prefer a Democratic Congress (vs. the 38 percent who's prefer a Republican Congress); 57 percent say that a unified government could "work together" and "end the gridlock in Washington"; and only 18 percent blame Congress for the country's problems (vs. the 35 percent who blame the Bush Administration).
Yet, the myth of divided government persists. The myth holds that people are consciously voting for one party to control the legislative branch and another party to control the executive branch for the reason of each checking the power of the other. Of course, most congressional districts are gerrymandered to protect incumbents, Senate elections are staggered very six years insulating them from mood swings of the electorate, and the Electoral College make the votes of many Americans for President irrelevant. Divided government is often as much the result of our Rube Goldberg electoral system as it is the preference of the American electorate. Americans aren’t voting to neutralize their own votes.

Still, many believe that divided government is truly what Americans like. Hendrik Hertzberg takes on the militant ambivalence of the centrists:
As the days dwindle down to a precious few, one of John McCain’s last-minute arguments is that it would be a terrible thing for both of the elected branches of the federal government to be controlled by the same party. McCain never made that argument before this year, of course, and he would not be making it now if the Republicans were a lock to win both Houses of Congress next Tuesday.

Still, nominally disinterested chronically centrist types make essentially the same argument. “Voters in America are increasingly independent and don’t trust any political party fully,” Larry J. Sabato, the U.Va. political scientist and quotemeister, has said. “They don’t want to give all of the political power to one party.” Cokie Roberts, broadcasting’s queen of the conventional wisdom, puts it this way: “For much of the last half-century, Americans have chosen divided government for good reason: We like it.”

Do we really? And have we ever really “chosen” it?

In the real world, most ticket-splitting is an artifact of the advantages of Congressional incumbency. Voters use the Presidential ballot to express their political preference regarding the direction they want for the country. But they may vote for good old Congressman Thing because they know him or because he has enough seniority to bring goodies to the district or because they never heard of the other guy or because his office helped out with that social-security problem Aunt Tillie was having.

One academic study, based on a regression analysis of 1992 and 1996 election data, finds that voters who split their tickets because they are consciously seeking to divide power and balance policy make up about twenty per cent of the electorate.

In other words, eighty per cent of the electorate prefers to have the government dominated by one party—their own.

This doesn’t mean that it’s pointless for McCain to make the argument he’s making. Every little bit helps. But, please, no more complacent lectures about how divided government is something that “we like.”

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