Expertinent: Making Sense of McCain's 'Divided Government' Argument

Expertinent is a regular Stumper column featuring interviews with experts on the news of the day. 

There are 19 days until Nov. 4. Barack Obama is leading by nearly 200 votes in estimates of the Electoral College. Experts expect the Democrats to pick up 20-25 seats in the House and six to eight seats in the Senate. If you're John McCain's top strategists--the people tasked with putting the Arizona Senator in the White House--what do you do? Increasingly, it seems that the answer is a) stop pretending the GOP can reclaim Congress and b) start arguing that McCain is the only thing standing between the American people and unrestrained Democratic rule.

Call it the "Divided Government Rationale." On Sunday, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis raised the specter of an all-Democratic D.C. on FOX News. "Do we really believe that the American public is going to feel safe by having both the head of the Congress and the head of the White House from the same party that has had so many challenges with the way they’ve run Washington over the last couple of years?" he asked. A few minutes later, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty chimed in as well. "I don’t think the country is going to like the Democratic Party running the table on taxes, on education, on health care and have kind of the liberal, unchecked, imbalanced approach to all of those issues," he said. "Having John McCain as president to balance that out and be able to work across the aisle as he has throughout his career to get things done would be a good compromise." Finally, Mitt Romney outed himself as a "divided-government" man at Wednesday's debate. "If they put forward a major tax increase, is he going to veto it? If it's nationalized health care, is he going to veto that?" Romney asked. "We need to say, 'you may not like the Bush administration, but how about the Pelosi administration?'... They would lead [Obama] by the nose, alright, because of their experience."

It's an interesting argument. But the question is whether it's a political winner. Wanting to find out more about the history of divided government--and to get a sense of whether McCain's new argument will connect--I called up Morris Fiorina, a professor of political science at Stanford University and the author of "Divided Government." Here's what he had to say:

STUMPER: Some conservatives are now arguing that the American people need to keep the potential excesses of a Democratic Congress in check and elect someone like McCain, who's got a history of bipartisanship but also obvious disagreements with Reid and Pelosi. Is there a historical rationale for this argument?
FIORINA: David Mayhew at Yale did a big study that showed that legislation was just as likely in divided-government times as in unified-government times. There's been a lot of controversy--people say, "How about important legislation, etc." But basically you can't see much difference. Some conservatives certainly argue that one institution can check the excesses of the other. So the arguments have been out there for ages. But there isn't any definitive evidence on one side or the other that division helps or hurts. I said this a long time ago, though, and I said it again on a panel last week: that we're going to see ads urging voters not to hand government over to these wild-eyed liberal forces of Pelosi and Reid and to have somebody in the White House to check them. Clinton did the same thing McCain is doing now. He ran on a divided-government message in 1996, even though he was certainly going to win. The 80s was probably the high point. It seems like we always had a split. If you asked people in polls what they preferred, majorities would typically say divided government. So it's a common argument.

Looking back, when has a divided Washington helped or hurt the workings of government (even if it's a wash overall)?
Think about welfare reform. Now it's regarded as a major policy achievement. But at the time, it was something that Republicans forced on Clinton. Clinton extracted some concessions and took credit for it. Or if you look at the bipartisan budget adoption under George H.W. Bush that contributed to the prosperity of the late '90s and balanced budgets. Go back to the Social Security revision of the '80s with Reagan, Tip O'Neill and Dole. There have been some pretty big things done in divided government periods where the parties got together and negotiated--legislation that was arguably more measured and effective than it would've been under one-party rule.

How about the corresponding argument? Instances where one-party rule led to great excesses?
Look at the George W. Bush years. The prescription-drug bill, what the Republicans were able to push through: no negotiating with the drug companies. I think you can look over the last administration and see a lot of really raunchy legislation that only exist because it was a unified-government period. You have to go back pretty far to find similar excesses on the Democratic side. Maybe some of the Great Society programs, where people would say they failed because they weren't vetted well enough and weren't based on motivation or any ideas that had actually been proven to work.

Isn't there another side to that coin, though--namely, that a unified government means less friction, which could mean a more responsive Washington, which could (in theory) prove useful in times of crisis?
Absolutely. FDR had 14 years of unified Democratic government. Of course, it fell apart in the late 1930s with the rise of the Conservative Coalition, the Southerners branching off. But that's why he was able to respond so swiftly to the Depression. By the same token, though, when you think back to Reagan, who was elected with a Democratic Congress, he got a lot done in his first few years. So I think generally during a period of what's considered to be either national emergency or when there's been a major electoral upheaval--any time the president comes in with what looks like a mandate, whether the government is unified or not--he can get a lot done. I mean, the Democrats in 1981 were just running scared. They just thought "this may be a new world, we'd better not get in this guy's way"... so it took a year or so for them to realize that, OK, the world isn't that new. McCain won't have that mandate; Obama might.

Is there an audience for McCain's divided-government message? Is this what voters want to hear?
We actually asked a question on a recent AP poll. The way we phrased it was, What would you prefer after the election? Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress or Barack Obama and a Republican Congress? Same with McCain: McCain and Democrats, McCain and Republicans. Most people preferred unified government. Barack Obama and Democrats was about 40-some percent, while McCain and Republicans was 30-some percent. But there was about 20 percent who still wanted divided government constellations. And there was more McCain-Democrat than Obama-Republican. So there is a set of voters out there that has this as their most preferred outcome. So if you added that set to the set that prefers a unified Republican government, you got about a tie. So if the McCain people have the same kind of data, that's obviously a place to go fishing.

But how powerful is fear of Reid and Pelosi? There's a difference between preferring a divided dynamic in theory and voting solely on that basis, right?
That's right. The big problem is that while you might prefer this in the abstract it's probably not enough of a motivation to make you cast your vote one way or the other. No one's going to vote against Obama just because they expect Democrats to control Congress. Ultimately, I doubt if McCain's argument is compelling. Part of the reason is that I think it's more convincing to go the other direction: to say, "Vote for me as a Republican congressman because Obama's going to be president." I think that would be more compelling to some voters than "vote for president because congress is going the other way." People key off the top office.

Imagine for a second that the government were divided, though--a Democratic congress with McCain as president. In what ways could that theoretically help the workings of government?
Given the current financial crisis, I have difficulty seeing how anything anybody does can help at this point. Obviously, the Democrats will be able to stop anything McCain would want, including Supreme Court appointments and so forth. To extend any tax cuts he's got to come to Congress and negotiate, because they sunset without Congressional action. So no. I think we're in for hard times. In some ways, Democrats run the risk of being really disappointed. If you have big majorities in Congress and Obama as president, he can't do health care, he can't do other things just because of how bad the economic situation is. It's going to be hard no matter who wins.

That makes a lot of sense: Democrats won't be able to indulge their most excessive impulses, even if Obama wins the White House.
That's absolutely right. The divided government argument is basically irrelevant given the current economic constraints.

Join the Discussion