Is Divided Government More Responsive?

I’m not sure how well Freddie and I addressed the central question of our discussion last night, to wit, how to overcome the institutional problems in our representative democracy.  But the discussion about health care alternatives and the lack of significant hope for Wyden-Bennett has gotten me thinking about the role of divided government not only in limiting government (which is a standard libertarian argument for divided government), but also, counterintuitively, in ensuring that changes (whether of the government-growing, government-limiting, or size-neutral variety) that do become law are meaningful.

In the six months that Democrats have had control of the Presidency and overwhelming control of the House and Senate, they have pushed three particularly major pieces of legislation: a stimulus package, cap-and-trade, and health care reform.  In each case, Republican/conservative opposition has been pretty much unified and, uhh, outspoken (Sens. Collins and Snowe notwithstanding).  Also in each case, the resulting legislation has been a huge letdown to liberal wonks and, really, the liberal “base” in general – at best, this group has viewed the legislation as a disappointingly inadequate (if important) step in the right direction, and in some cases has even viewed it as counterproductive (see, e.g., the reaction of various environmental groups to Waxman-Markely). 

In response, liberals have typically been blaming “Blue Dog” Democrats for insisting on watering the legislation down to a ridiculous level, although I’ve also seen attempts to blame Republicans for having no interest in negotiating in good faith such that the only way to pass legislation is to horse-trade with the Blue Dogs.

To a certain extent, I think this finger-pointing is accurate – Blue Dog Democrats with relatively conservative constituencies have very much been at the center of watering down these proposals, or at least adding on various goodies for their constituencies that have the effect of undermining the legislation’s purpose.  Similarly, there would be little need for horse-trading with the Blue Dogs if Republicans had any interest in passing legislation that would fix the problems these piece of legislation are supposed to fix – that’s not to say that the legislation would meet the liberal ideal if Republicans were serious about these problems, just that it would better reflect good faith ideas about how to correct those problems.  So, if Republicans were serious about health care, for instance, the result wouldn’t be the liberal ideal of single-payer, but it would probably be something along the lines of Wyden-Bennett, which just about everyone agrees would be a meaningful reform that would solve a lot of our system’s biggest problems. 

At the same time, though, this finger-pointing at Blue Dogs and Republicans misses something pretty important – no matter who’s in power, there are always going to be squishy centrists on the side of the majority who have constituencies that need to be bribed and/or appeased in any reform legislation.  Similarly, whenever you have single-party control of government, the opposition party will have no real reason to do anything other than be the “Party of No” – if a reform achieves its goals, the party in power will get all the credit, ensuring the party out of power falls even further out of power; if the reform fails, the party out of power will be able to heap all the blame on the party in power – but only if the party out of power almost uniformly opposes the legislation. 

There are exceptions to this rule, to be sure, but by and large I don’t think there’s anything unique about a party as far out of power as the Republicans refusing to assist in crafting meaningful reform, nor do I think there’s anything unusual about majority legislators from squishy districts seeking to water the reform down enough to keep it from jeopardizing their hold on elective office.  This isn’t to give moral justification for those actions – just to say that the cause of these actions is systemic rather than a question of a few “bad” Democrats or an abnormally dishonest group of Republicans. 

Beyond that, unified government may also invite more, rather than less, influence from narrow interest groups on the legislative process.  This is simply because in a unified government, interest groups need only focus on lobbying a small group of people.  They can mostly ignore the party out of power because that party is, for the most part, going to vote “no” on just about anything and will thus have little input on the wording of the legislation itself; similarly, they may in some instances be able to focus almost entirely on only one branch of government where the other branch of government is likely to just rubber stamp the other’s proposals.

On the other hand, when you have divided governmentof some sort, a lot of these concerns may fall by the wayside.  Both parties will have a strong incentive to negotiate in good faith since they will not want to be credibly portrayed as standing in the way of a meaningful reform effort but will also not want to have to face the blame if that reform effort fails to achieve its goals.  This is doubly true because reforms will just about always resonate with Americans in theory, regardless of whether that reform would succeed in practice.  So in a divided government, the goal of both parties is much more likely to be the implementation of reforms that actually go a long way to achieving their stated goal rather than the implementation of whatever reform is acceptable to squishy centrists. 

Additionally, the role of interest groups is at least somewhat mitigated by the fact that now they will need to divide their resources to lobby both parties and both branches of government since there’s no guarantee of which party or branch’s version is going to predominate.  In other words, if they’re going to have any input in the final version of the bill, they’re going to have to persuade all parties to the negotiations rather than just  a handful of squishy centrists who hold the balance of power.

A quick hypothetical to illustrate my point: imagine, if you will, that the PUMA movement somehow managed to succeed in electing John McCain to the Presidency such that Democrats were able to simultaneously obtain the types of legislative majorities they currently enjoy.  McCain enters office after having campaigned on a health care reform that, although seriously unpopular with liberals, is also conceptually reconcilable with Sen. Wyden’s proposal (which has exised for years).  Democrats, seeing an opportunity to either embarass McCain or push through meaningful reform that will be popular with their base, decide to make a push for Wyden’s bill.

This immediately puts McCain in a tough spot, even if his campaign promises on health care were mere platitudes.  If he opposes the legislation, Democrats will force it through, unchanged; “squishy” Dem centrists will even support the legislation since they know it will get vetoed and will make great fodder for their next campaign when they get to proclaim themselves as reformers without any regard for whether that refom, if implemented, would have actually been popular with their constituents.  Meanwhile, McCain’s veto of this popular, but entirely hypothetical, reform will be used against him again and again and again. 

On the other hand, if McCain simply supports the legislation without criticism, he runs the risk of being blamed for any failures in that legislation by his own party.  Moreover, if he just simply rubber stamps the legislation at arms’ length, it will be marginally more difficult for him and his party to claim credit for any of the legislation’s successes since it will be portrayed as entirely the work of the other party.  On the other hand, if he negotiates in good faith, he’ll be able to claim credit for any of the bill’s successes, while simultaneously bragging about his victory in blocking Provision X, which he will say would have clearly been the end of Western Civilization as we know it. 

It is thus in McCain’s interest to negotiate in good faith with Congress to arrive at a bill that both sides think will work without having too many obvious and unacceptable collateral consequences. 

This isn’t to say that divided government  is a cure-all that ensures that all our problems will be competently dealt with.  Instead, it’s just to say that divided government makes three things more likely: 1. Where there is no national consensus on the existence of a problem, no legislation will try to fix that alleged problem; 2. Where there is a national consensus on the existence of a problem, legislation will be strongly pushed that seeks to solve that problem; and 3.  Legislation that passes will be the result of good-faith negotiations about how best to solve the problem. 

Conversely, unified government makes it more likely that: 1. There will be more legislation where only one side of the political spectrum sees the existence of a problem; 2. There will be less legislation where there is a consensus on the existence of a problem since solutions to that problem will, in some instances, be politically inconvenient to the party in power, while the party out of power will have little incentive to push meaningful reform for which the party in power will be able to take credit; and 3. Legislation that becomes law will be significantly undermined, possibly to the point of being counter-productive, by intra-party horse trading and more concentrated interest group influence.

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31 thoughts on “Is Divided Government More Responsive?

  1. “Also in each case, the resulting legislation has been a huge letdown to liberal wonks and, really, the liberal ‘base’ in general…”

    Well said and accurate.

    But Obama’s “Imperial” Executive, a la W Bush, tendencies offend this member of the base even more.

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  2. Interesting point, but I think it’s a bit off. What’s missing is the fact that Republicans and Democrats both see a problem with health care, but they don’t see the same problem. The Republicans see it as a problem because of cost growth; in 1965 and 1993, when the situation was less acute and less obviously unsustainable, they didn’t see a problem in health care at all (cf Kristol). Now, they do see a problem, but they see it as excessive cost growth putting a too-large fiscal strain on government.

    Meanwhile, Democrats are motivated by a different set of concerns. There’s a reason that LBJ and FDR and Clinton all tried this, and it wasn’t because fiscal circumstance forced their hands. Rather, for the liberal base, the problem is the existence of the uninsured. Universal health care is seen as the missing piece of the safety net, which is seen as a liberal project, and to complete it is a foundational goal of the modern liberal movement.

    I don’t mean to put this into a simple “liberals good, conservatives bad” dichotomy–that’s less than accurate, and definitely not useful. But you’ll agree, I’m sure, that conservative politicians and activists are not trying to solve the same health care problem that liberals are. And that would pose a problem for any compromise on health care.

    If there were a bloc of Republicans saying “We want to guarantee that everyone has a minimum level of affordable health care, but we want to do it our way”, there might be grounds for compromise. But this bloc is, as far as I can tell, mythical. Compromise can work when both sides agree on a problem (e.g. tax reform in 1986). But when the fight is over definitions of the problem, it’s largely beside the point.

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    • Which is a longer way of saying that if you actually think you could get something like the Wyden plan through Congress with a McCain presidency, but not with an Obama one, you’ve got a sharply differing view of “politically viable” than me. Frankly, Democrats can barely get to 60 now–I think you’re dramatically underestimating the political forces arrayed against something like the Wyden bill, and overestimating the degree to which either the McCain White House or Congressional Republicans would be motivated to overcome those forces. Plus, you’d probably lose a certain number of Blue Dogs and other “moderates” just because the Wyden bill upsets a lot more established interests.

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      • This is a point I wish I’d spent more of my post addressing directly, because it’s an important one. I just wanted to keep the post to a semi-reasonable length, which is why I went with the short hypothetical rather than a fuller explanation.

        First, it’s important to note that I’m more talking about likelihoods here than certainties; I think the Wyden plan would still face an uphill road under a McCain presidency, but that said road would be somewhat less steep than under a unified government.

        I think the key is that under a hypothetical McCain Presidency with huge Dem Congressional majorities, the Dems have both the incentive and the means to utterly humiliate McCain. I suspect that a lot of the Blue Dog Democrats would jump ship if it looked like McCain would sign the bill; but if he signaled a potential veto, then the Blue Dogs would have a lot of political reasons to vote for the Wyden bill – there would be no political costs to supporting a bill that got vetoed with no chance of becoming law, but a great political payoff (namely, being able to tie your GOP opponent to McCain’s veto). At that point, the reform is entirely hypothetical, and as such can be painted as the greatest idea since the wheel while arguments that the reform would have been disastrous are going to be hard to get past the “elevator test.”

        McCain, interested in self-preservation just like any politician, sees the potential for embarassment and early on signals a willingness to negotiate in good faith. Once he’s done this, it’s inevitable that some not-insignificant number of GOP legislators (probably centrists from blue and purple states) are going to go along with whatever emerges, so long as it’s got McCain’s seal of approval – even without regard to their ideological hangups, they’re going to see the chance to bolster their campaigns by signing on to a much-demanded reform while also getting ideological cover on their right flank due to the fact that their party’s figurehead backs it.

        In the process, you probably lose some significant percentage of the Blue Dogs who come from red-to-purple states where the reform is much more politically risky once it actually gets implemented.

        Would the results be enough to actually get the legislation passed? I’m not at all certain, particularly keeping in mind that interest groups are still going to have a lot of influence on the process, even if it’s somewhat less influence than in a unified government. But I think that you’d at least see some sort of amalgam between the Wyden plan and the McCain plan get seriously debated rather than more or less totally ignored.

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    • I think you’re basically correct here, Dan, but maybe I can overcome that by clarifying my point a bit. When I’m talking about consensus, I’m not necessarily suggesting that it’s a problem on which both parties have the same diagnosis, but rather that it’s a problem about which an overwhelming majority of Americans writ large are concerned. This is what I was referring to with respect to my suggestion that legislation on consensus issues may actually be somewhat less likely under a unified government – a unified government won’t have to usually confront issues on which there is a broad national consensus about the existence of a problem that the party in power mostly doesn’t acknowledge. Remember, at any given time, roughly a third of Americans each identify as Republicans, Dems, or independent (with obvious periods of fluctuation).

      If the party in power denies the existence of a problem that Dems and Independents overwhelmingly acknowledge, it won’t usually pay a penalty for ignoring that problem in a unified government since there won’t be many pols on either side publicly pushing hard to address it. But in a divided government, once one party pushes hard to address that problem, the other party is forced to act as if it takes that problem seriously or risk suffering badly at the polls. This is true whether or not that party sincerely accepts the existence of that problem.

      On health care, I would say that there’s probably the sort of consensus I’m referring to on the problems of both the uninsured and high costs, especially since they’re so obviously and closely related – the less expensive health care is, the fewer uninsured you have.

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      • I get your point, but I do disagree with your read on the situation–I don’t think there’s a national consensus that the uninsured are a problem. Democrats taken as a whole certainly do, and in a strongly Democratic environment that can look like a national consensus, but I don’t think it is.

        Put another way: if Republicans passed their dream vision for health care, do you think it would guarantee universal coverage? I sincerely doubt it. (And if that’s not enough for you, go to Heritage or its ilk and see if you can find them introducing a plan for universal coverage; or, for that matter, check out the basic principles laid out by Conservatives for Patients Rights, a leading righty health org, and see if you can find universal coverage on their site; I couldn’t).

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        • In retrospect, I may be guilty of mixing up the institutional conservative movement with the actual voters who elect conservatives, but I’ll stand by my point–I don’t think the broad membership of the Republican party is concerned about the existence of the uninsured either, at least not to the extent they’re willing to take action on it. If you’re a GOP congressman, you’re not going to lose an election because you didn’t cover enough people with your health care plan.

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        • Hmm….weird that the libertarian is saying there’s a consensus for covering the uninsured while the passionate advocate of universal coverage is saying there isn’t. I have no idea what this means, but it seems worth noting. Let it never be said that discussions at the League are predictable!

          It’s possible that you’re right about that, though I’m not sure either way. Polling shows that Americans are split 46-44, respectively, on whether the biggest problem is the uninsured or costs. Then again, presumably some unknown percentage of those who think costs are the biggest problem also think that the uninsured are a problem that ought to be a high priority. Admittedly, the opposite is probably more true since it’s hard to be concerned about the uninsured without recognizing the role of high costs in exacerbating that problem, but it’s at least possible that a good 1/3 of those who want to emphasize costs also view the uninsured as a high priority.

          Anywho, if there’s no consensus on coverage for those who can’t afford it (keeping in mind that some unknown percentage of the uninsured actively choose to be so), but there is a consensus on costs, I think that would strongly support my theory. In that case, HR 3200 addresses a problem on which there is no real consensus outside of Democrats while pretty much ignoring (and possibly exacerbating) a problem, costs, on which there is a strong national consensus. Meanwhile, the Wyden bill, which addresses both the consensus and the non-consensus problem, is out of the debate entirely.

          DISCLAIMER: The theory I’ve expressed in this post is very much a work in progress, so I’m not remotely certain that it’s right. These comments are useful if unscientific tests of said hypothesis. If I had to assign a probability of this theory being right, I’d have to go with .50 < p < .60.

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  • I think it just means I’m more of a pessimist than you are. I’ve got lots of ideas that I don’t think there’s a consensus for; ask me about gun control sometime :) If I’m right, it would indeed confirm your theory. However, it would seem to pose a problem for those who believe that there actually is something wrong with leaving people uninsured.

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  • The framework provided in your concluding paragraph, really fits how things like Waxman Markey get passed but repealing DADT is still on the back, back burner.

    Which I think leads back to a point that is implicitly spelled out in your post, that unified government leads to the bundling of power with those who control the majorities (Obey-Pelosi-Reid) at the expense, not just of those out of power but also of constituencies within the governing coalition that – for lack of a better term – are trapped in a political monopoly.

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    • “Which I think leads back to a point that is implicitly spelled out in your post, that unified government leads to the bundling of power with those who control the majorities (Obey-Pelosi-Reid) at the expense, not just of those out of power but also of constituencies within the governing coalition that – for lack of a better term – are trapped in a political monopoly.”

      I hadn’t intended to make this point in this post, but that’s a terrific inference. I’ve made that point in other contexts pretty frequently over the years, so I’m sort of kicking myself for not drawing the connection in this context.

      In other words – great point!

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  • I don’t have the plug-in loaded so I missed the preamble from last night, but cannot help but observe that posing the question of “how to overcome the institutional problems in our representative democracy” is in my mind functionally identical to wondering “Why won’t this government pass the laws I want passed when I want them passed?

    That said, I’ll throw in two cents on the question in the title “Is Divided Government More Responsive?”. Some interesting and thought provoking comments by Mark and the commentariat.

    There has been some definitive scholarship on the slightly different question “Is Divided Government more or less effective than One Party Government.” The work was done by David Mayhew in his book “Divided We Govern”.

    There is a pervasive belief – a nugget of “conventional wisdom” – that if you want to “get things done” in Congress, whether legislation, investigations to clean up governmental abuses, or just promote “change”, a single party must control the Presidency and both legislative branches to avoid gridlock. It certainly seems intuitively obvious that the the federal government would be more productive if it all branches are run by one party. David Mayhew proved this conventional wisdom flat wrong, at least in the modern era. He puts the proposition to the test by rigorously quantifying and analyzing all legislation and investigations (the two primary functions of Congress) from 1946-2002. First published in 1991, the book was updated with a second edition in 2005. This book is the seminal work that debunked the notion that the federal government functions more effectively with unified single party control.

    Full Disclosure , the above paragraph is copied from a mini-review of the book I posted last September, when I was trying to understand what I could expect from the imminent one party rule we are now enjoying. Again, this is a slightly different question than the one Mark asks here. Mayhew showed empirically that there is no measurable difference in the productivity of divided vs. one party governments. As to the question that Mark asks of why or – more specifically- what does make an administration more effective/responsive/productive Mayhew also offers some speculation (and I offer some more cut and paste):

    In his data, he documents periods spanning many years, where Congress becomes very productive in what Mayhew calls a legislative and/or investigatory “surge”. Having completely dismantled any consideration that single party government is correlated with these productive congressional eras, he speculates on other factors that might drive these legislative surges. This portion of the book is considerably less rigorous statistically, but it is interesting and potentially directly relevant to what we are seeing in this 2008 election season. Specifically, Mayhew explores the notion that the primary pre-requisite for theses periodic legislative “surges” is a “pervasive public mood demanding change”.

    The relevance to the Obama administration is obvious. The open question now, as it was during the campaign, is whether the “pervasive public mood for change” really extends to any policy beyond simply a “pervasive public mood” to swap out the Bush administration for something else. On this point I agree with Mark that health care is an area that there was/is a “pervasive public mood for change” – specifically to be sure that 1) all Americans have access to health care and 2)Americans should not be bankrupted by getting the health care they need. This was a true mandate that Obama could have capitalized on, if he had not chosen to squander his mandate on a massively wasteful and expensive “stimulus plan” that does not actually stimulate. There was no mandate for that “change’. Does he still have enough political capital left after squandering so much on that bill? Maybe. We’ll see.

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    • mw:

      I was hoping this post would lure you out of the woodwork! You did not disappoint!

      Thanks for the info – that’s really interesting stuff about which I was previously unaware. And it’s not just interesting because it more or less backs up the theory behind this post.

      As for the question that was the topic of our discussion last night, I think there are a few ways to interpret it that don’t delve into simple opposition to the policies that are passed into law – it can be interpreted as simply a question about how to overcome public choice theory, or about how to make government more effective and responsive in the areas where it chooses to act in the first place. I’m not sure how well our dialogue responds to those interpretations, but I think that those interpretations don’t require any ideological biases.

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      • Yeah. Its pretty easy. “Divided Government” in the subject willl usually do it.

        I’ve been on something of a blogging hiatus over the last 3-4 months, but am starting to ramp up again. Got to get back into the swing of things for the 2010 midterms.

        It’s tough getting motivated. I really believe it will take decades to recover from the damage done by the blow out deficits created by the stimulus package and prok laden budget bills. The worst part of it is that is now clear that particular exercise of raw partisan political power was to no greater end than a display of political muscle and releasing the eight years of pent-up demand for pork spoils back to the Democratic party victors. The damage is incalculable. The piper has yet to be paid for this fiscal irresponsibility and it ain’t going to be pretty. A definitive example of the cure being worse than the disease.

        I’ve never in my 56 years been so pessimistic about the future of our country. I don’t even get the consolation prize of a rollback of the Bush/Cheney unitary executive power grab. Instead it is now permanently institutionalized by Obama with nary a peep from this lapdog Congress. But I guess thats ok because, you know, we like Obama and we trust him and he talks good and he’ll never abuse that power and he’ll always be president. Right? Cripes. I need a drink. I think I’ll go back on hiatus.

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        • On that pent-up demand, from the text of the same link:

          Much of it has followed a well-worn path to places that regularly collect a bigger share of federal grants and contracts, guided by formulas that have been in place for decades and leave little room for manipulation.

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          • Fair enough. But the distribution to Dem districts was still far above what can be explained by “places that regularly collect a bigger share of federal grants and contracts”.

            I think Ed Morrissey nailed it:

            “It may not have been a deliberate calculation, but the disparity comes from the nature of the stimulus, and it shows just how political Porkulus was. It wasn’t a stimulus package at all – most of the money gets spent after the first year — but a collection of Democratic Party ideological wish lists and pork projects. Districts that voted Obama get twice as much money per person because Democrats controlled the pork projects and got the money into their districts. That’s not exactly rocket science, but it’s certainly revealing

            The point is that it is now obvious that the stimulus package was not even vaguely similar to what Obama claimed it was at the time. More people recognize that, and as a consequence are less likely to believe his broad, sweeping. detail-free rhetoric about the health care bill now.

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            • I’ll buy that. The stimulus was not what it should have been. I don’t recall exactly everything Obama said it was — I think he had hoped it would be closer to how he described it but didn’t force his party not to dole it out via spoils. The piece you link, though, fairly clearly suggests up top that Obama himself has been directing funds to places that voted for him disproportionately but then makes clear it’s really a function of typical pork as done in Congress.

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  • In all honesty, I think there are leaps on top of bounds of speculation here about how things are likely unfold that someone inclined to could equally postulate opposing outcomes to. Much depends on the personalities and political situations of the players involved, so that in fact it is doubtful that outcomes would be any more predictable under divided government than in one-party rule, perhaps even more unpredictable.

    But regardless of the conclusions Mark draws about probabilities in a hypothetical divided government, I have two responses. First, I think this post partially reflects and partially obscures a crucial reality about domestic policy in the U.S.: the action is in Congress and the president’s power, unlike in foreign affairs, really is circumscribed in reality in the way it was envisioned to be. So to take the health care example, if the leaders in Congress felt McCain would be helped by a health care victory (and I think they would — there’s no reason to believe they would want to let a Republican take credit for their party’s longstanding number-one priority, nor that they would be interested in letting the legislation be determined by his limitations), then they simply would deny it to him, demonize him for being unwilling to sign the ‘right’ kind of reform, and that would be that. He’d be at their mercy if he stepped onto their turf, in other words.

    Secondly, there is not much upshot to this speculation even if its aptness could be shown. A minimum of voters decide on the basis of a conscious desire for divided government. Sure, it make sense to think about what works best, but even if many more people did think in those terms, the calculations that would go into the strategic voting necessary to bring about divided government with regularity makes this line of analysis nothing more than that — an analytical framework, not a workable political strategy of any kind. After all, in presidential years, there’s really no way to do it at all, since it is not known who will be the presidential winner (and partisan emotions tend to be high in those so that partisan voting/presidential coattails are likely to overwhelm any strategic voting). And then in midterm years, the president’s party already usually loses seats (the prevention of which regular occurrence was in my view the primary reason we invaded Iraq), so the question of whether divided government results is really just a matter of how strong the tide happens to be in a given year and how great the majority was to start out. In other words, people will always be driven in their voting by the fundamentals (economy, failing/succeeding war, etc.) which will sometimes lead to divided government and sometimes to unified control. I don’t think we want to anoint one condition over another for fear of formally lowering our expectations of the process (not that we shouldn’t contain them generally).

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    • Crap. The intertubes ate my reply to this, so I’ll have to give the Reader’s Digest version.

      1. This post is intended to be speculative, and I’m not sure this hypothesis could be empirically tested, although the work mw quotes presents a pretty close parallel/corollary.

      2. I think you’re selling the power of the President’s bully pulpit short. The existence of that bully pulpit gives him a power that is symmetrical to Congress’ ability to embarass the President by forcing him to veto popular reforms. This means he has the ability to force the party in control of Congress to either negotiate on a popular agenda item in good faith or risk taking a pounding from enraged voters just as Congress has that power over the President.

      3. I’m skeptical that Congress would be able to pull off a move where they bloviated about a reform, received a good-faith offer of negotiation from the President, and then blamed the President for supporting the wrong kind of reform. Any attempt to blame the President in such a situation would likely fail the elevator test and would thus likely backfire. I think this would hold equally true if the roles were reversed.

      4. I agree that, in terms of voting strategy, this theory has little value. It’s really intended just as a non-normative theory about when government is more responsive. Still, I could see it having some value to activists in terms of strategizing when to push hardest for certain types of reform efforts, depending on whether a consensus exists or is likely to exist in the foreseeable future as to the problems they are trying to fix.

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  • I agree with many of Michael’s comments. Mark is interested in doing a deep dive into Congressional behavior to speculate exactly why there are certain predictable consequences of a divided vs. single party government. One of these, and the issue that is the most important to me, is that it has been determined as an absolute empirical historical fact that the growth of federal spending is more restrained in a divided government than under single party rule – regardless of party. Always. Every time. Unlike Mark, I am far less interested in why it works as I am in promoting a voting heuristic to take advantage of that phenomena. Or as I wrote in 2006 while advocating a straight Democrat vote for Congress:

    “Regardless whether you believe the theory that the sun’s rays are generated from nuclear fusion, or whether you believe (as I do) that the sun’s rays are generated by Apollo’s flaming chariot as he makes his daily ride across the sky, you are still going to burn if you don’t wear sunscreen. And regardless of whether a divided government restrains spending through gridlock, or whether it is a result of some other mechanism, we will all still be burned if we continue with single party control in Washington.”

    Where I disagree with you both, is in the potential value of voting for divided government as a voting heuristic. I do not argue that people vote for divided government now or even whether they really want divided government. I don’t know whether they do or not. I argue that people who support the objectives of fiscal responsibility, spending restraint, and limited federal government should want and should vote consistently for divided government. My blog advocates for a voting heuristic that would permit a minority of unrepresented voters who believe in those objectives to have a much larger impact on our federal government than they do now.

    Contrary to Michael’s assertion, it is actually quite easy to determine the divided government vote in any given federal election. Common sense is all that is needed. In 1994 the Divided Government(DG) vote was obvious. It was a vote for a Republican Congress and succeeded. In 1996 the DG vote was obvious. It was for Bill Clinton and succeeded. In 1998 there was no relevant DG vote because there was no realistic possibility for the Dems to take either house. In 2000 the DG vote was for Al Gore and failed (or not depending on your political persuasion). In 2002 the DG vote was obvious. It was a straight Dem vote for Congress and failed. In 2004, the DG vote was obvious. It was a vote for John Kerry and failed. In 2006, the DG vote was obvious. It was a straight vote for Democratic party legislators and succeeded. In 2008, the DG vote was obvious. It was a vote for John McCain and failed. In 2010 the divided government vote will be a straight vote for Republican legislators and will likely fail to achieve that goal, but will hopefully close the gap in preparation for 2012. In 2012, the divided government vote will be for Republican Senators, and/or the Republican nominee for President. It very well may succeed, with Republicans retaking either the White House, or (more likely) the Senate, with the Dems retaining control of the House of Representatives (and maybe the presidency).

    I can go on. Ok. I will (blame Mark – he enticed me here).

    If the “divided government vote” is not obvious, if reasonable people can argue about what the correct “divided government” vote should be, then there simply is no “divided government” vote for that election. In that circumstance, the moderate/libertarian divided government voting block would go “free agent.” There are several easily identifiable situations where it will be completely obvious that there is absolutely no divided government vote. As a hypothetical example: Although the Democrats structural advantage in the Senate race in 2010 make it extremely unlikely that the Republicans can take either legislative house, if the GOP were by some miracle able to retake the Senate, and the Democrats hold the House of Representatives, we would go into 2012 with a divided Congress that is likely to stay that way. This means the presidential vote in 2012 would have no divided government preference (assuming that historical incumbent advantages hold.) It simply does not matter which party the president belongs to, as the congress and the government would still be divided. In that case, the moderate/libertarian/dividist vote becomes “free agent” with a counter-intuitive preference for incumbents.

    Enough. Don’t make me go on.

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    • Alright, you’ve got me half-convinced that I’m wrong about the value of a voting strategy. (I don’t know why this comment was so persuasive when I’ve been reading your blog for close to two years now).

      That said, accepting your point that a divided government strategy can be valuable, I’m wondering why that strategy should necessarily be limited to we advocates of, err, limited government. If you accept my argument in this particular post as well as your point, doesn’t that also mean that people who place a high priority on any kind of a large systemic change would also benefit from a divided government strategy?

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      • Great. I’ll add you to the 2010 edition of the “Coalition of the Divided” whenever I get around to posting it.

        Yes I suppose it could have greater applicability, but this may simply be a line I cannot cross because my deep rooted cynicism overwhelms all other considerations. I fundamentally believe that 80-85% of the electorate is a pure partisan vote and nothing is ever going to change that. Even most of those claiming to be “Independents” can actually be relied on to vote along predictable partisan lines most of the time. My hope is that true independents, people who are really willing to switch parties every election, overlap to a large degree with the libertarianish middle that was documented by Boaz and Kirby. That is the potential pool of people from which a Divided Government vote must be drawn. I’d peg that pool at about 12% of the electorate. In my manic phases, I think that perhaps half of that pool could be convinced to vote as a block using divided government as an organizing principle, instead of canceling themselves out as they generally do now.

        That 5 or 6% is likely a high water mark for this kind of a strategy, but it would be enough to determine the outcome of most national elections in a roughly balanced polarized, partisan environment.

        Ultimately, I see this voting heuristic as potentially effective, but short-term and self-limiting. Maintaining divided government has real benefits in terms of governance, and the primary benefit of successfully implementing this voting tactic is to move the country toward the objectives of spending restraint and fiscal responsibility.

        Still – objectively, divided government only slows the growth of the state, with no evidence that it can actually begin to reduce it. One way to describe the situation is that the “Divided Government vote” stands down when the “Moderate/Centrist/libertarianish vote” stands up. Ultimately, if the divided government constituency is co-opted and eroded because Democrats and/or Republicans are wrestling with each other to prove who are the better, more effective moderate/libertarians, and can prove this to a skeptical, rational, empirical swing vote … well then our job here is done.

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  • Selling short/selling long:

    1. I think mw may be right that I am overselling the difficulty of determining how to vote for divided government. That in presidential years I still think it is a tactic that doesn’t go very far, though it’s easy enough to just split your ticket. So from the individual-voter perspective it’s an okay way to justify your vote. But I was combining those difficulties with the fact that people who consciously vote for DG are in a tiny minority (I think), so that the likelihood that such explicit voting will bring about its desired result is miniscule in my view. On the other hand, it is entirely fair to point out that when voters vote in a party in reaction to perceptions of failure on the part of a president’s party’s majority in Congress, they are functionally voting for DG, even if the proximate reason in their minds is general perceptions of failure. To name drop a thinker with some (perhaps negative) currency in these parts, Daniel Dennett might (Might!) say that in such cases there is essentially no important distinction between the two descriptions of the situation, in keeping with they way that there is no distinction between the mind of a human being and a hypothetical “zombie” who always responds in similar situations exactly the way a real human being would.

    2. I don’t think I am selling short the near-equal likelihood of unproductive outcomes in divided government. I definitely don’t think I am overselling the propensity for members/leaders in Congress to embrace (to invoke another in-vogue thinker) “zero-sumness” in their dealings with the president. The reason is that blame can be distributed among many members for purposes of reelection for Congresspersons, whereas the president bears full electoral responsibility for whatever Congress or the media can hang on him.

    But even if we accept that (again, confining the discussion to domestic affairs), the president’s bully pulpit in theory is powerful enough to negate the effects of a recalcitrant Congressional leadership, I think the outcomes we might predict as a general matter are very tenuous, because the power of the president’s bully pulpit on various issues will vary with his credibility on the issue. I don’t think Nancy Pelosi would have any problem whatsoever being utterly contemptuous of John McCain’s health initiatives, as he routinely betrays his lack of interest and previous attention to the issue (regardless of the merits of the proposals crafted by his advisors). Democrats could very credibly dismiss his efforts (not to defend that course of action.) On the other hand, if the counterfactual envisioned a different Republican in the White House, say Mitt Romney, Democrats’ hands would be tied, and they’d plainly be very much in the bind you describe. On the other hand, Romney would be in a bind to explain why what is good for Massachussetts (which is much closer to what is being contemplated currently than to a Wyden-esque approach) wouldn’t be good for the country as well.

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