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The Public Seems to Dislike Unified Government Even More Than Dysfunction

Ramesh Ponnuru recently laid out [1] the reasons for increased Republican opposition in a second Obama term. Noah Millman dubs this the “argument from chutzpah” and explains [2] how it could be turned against them:

One answer is to publicize precisely this argument, and make it a constant talking point in down-ticket races. The evidence is overwhelming that the country hates Congress, and hates it specifically because of its dysfunction. If the GOP is effectively running on perpetuating that dysfunction, I’d think you could cut a pretty good ad about that.

It may be unnecessary to use this argument against Republicans. The public doesn’t seem to have much of an interest in giving either party control of the legislative and executive branches at the same time. When there has been unified government in the recent past, it has been rejected quite quickly. I suspect that one of the most important reasons why the public has no confidence in Congress and disapproves of it as an institution is that most people do not trust the political class, and Congress is the embodiment of that class. Making it easier for one part of that class to enact its agenda would seem to be exactly what most voters don’t want. A majority voted for dysfunction two years ago, and they seem to have done so intentionally. I don’t think that they’re displeased with the results. The “argument from chutzpah” is dangerous for Republicans because it reminds the public of their last experience with unified Republican government, which isn’t likely to improve Romney’s chances of winning. Besides, if the public distrusts the political class as deeply as they seem to, there will be no desire to give either party a mandate.

We know how Republicans reacted to Clinton’s re-election. There was a mixture of frustration and disbelief, which led them into an increasingly bitter political fight with Clinton leading up to his impeachment that they ended up losing. They made no more gains in the ’98 midterms, and they even managed the unusual feat of losing seats in the House in a sixth-year election. Of course, much will depend on economic circumstances, but the GOP’s most recent experience with a second-term Democratic President suggests that continued rejectionism could produce diminishing returns and may not help them very much politically in another two years.

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10 Comments To "The Public Seems to Dislike Unified Government Even More Than Dysfunction"

#1 Comment By EngineerScotty On September 5, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

One problem with this analysis, Daniel.

In the past, divided government has generally produced compromise, and somewhat sensible policy. Clinton got a lot of business done with the GOP Congress in the 1990s, and the Reagan/Bush got a lot of stuff done despite a Democratic controlled congress in the 1980s.

The current MO of the GOP–and so far, we haven’t seen counter behavior from the Democrats–is the scorched-earth tactics of obstruction and denial of any cooperation, with routine business being filibustered and delayed, compromise legislation being ignored, and an ill-fated attempt to hold the country’s credit rating hostage to win significant political concessions.

In bicameral parliamentary systems in which this can occur (i.e Australia), the stalemates tend to get resolved by new elections being called so the people can elect a new government empowered to do their bidding. In the US, though, there are no snap elections and no dissolution of Congress.

Could similar obstruction work for the Democrats, in the unlikely event that Romney wins the White House but the Democrats take back the House and keep the Senate? One reason that it works–and this is a theory that will get tested this November–is a belief that Obama will be held responsible for the economy, no matter how much his policies are obstructed or diluted. Were Obama to lose, Democrats might be eager to try the same if the shoe is on the other foot. That said, as the party of more activist government, they would have less to benefit from it, and I suspect the press corps would come down harder on Democratic obstructionism than on the GOP.

#2 Comment By charlie On September 5, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

This sounds about right. In fact, one of the key error of Obama’s first term was letting congress run the health care debate for so long. While any turn away from the imperial presidency is nice, it also made Americans associate health care reform with congress.

#3 Comment By Tom On September 5, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

The congress is no more dysfunctional than the American electorate who vote to send them there. As a group the American people really aren’t sure what they want which is why a majority think government should be reduced but when specific programs are mentioned the only one that a majority agree should be cut is foreign aid.
As far as the parliamentary system is concerned the country’s that have it aren’t in any better shape than the U.S. in most cases worse.

#4 Comment By American but not Conservative On September 5, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

The public doesn’t dislike a unified government’s agenda per se; it’s the content of the agenda that matters. If they like what a one-party government does for them, they’ll re-elect it. That’s what happened during FDR’s whole presidency. By contrast, they tired of the Bush agenda of wrongful war, bad hurricane response, cronyism, etc., and booted the GOP after 4 yrs of unified rule.

EngineerScotty covers other good topics. In fact, the most recent period of unified government (Dems 2009-2011) was already a de facto divided government. Between the GOP’s unprecedented filibustering and obstruction, and Obama’s bipartisan, conciliatory (one could say conservative) leadership, it was a constant chase for approval from the GOP and the Dems’ conservative fringe. Despite supermajorities, the Dems’ highlights included conservative health insurance reform, and the strange spectacle of the televised president comparing himself to a hostage negotiator willing to give anything away to keep hostages from getting killed.

#5 Comment By Susan Salisbury On September 5, 2012 @ 4:29 pm

Only Republicans refuse to compromise? You have to be kidding. No. I know you are not because you are looking through a liberal prism. Obama, for the most part, won’t even meet with leaders from the House of Representatives. Every bill sent to the Democrat controlled Senate dies. There is no compromise from the Democrats at all that I can see. Their idea of compromise from the Republicans is we’ll ask for a trillion dollars in new spending and settle for 999Billion. Sorry. That’s not compromise. There has been no change in direction as a result of the 2010 elections. There is a Republican house precisely because when all of the branches were Democrat Obama passed nationalized health care. Scott Brown won his Senate seat by promising to be the 41st vote against Obamacare. The New Democratic party doesn’t care what the people want. And, by the way, I really am not sure why this website is called the American Conservative. It looks pretty liberal to me.

#6 Comment By Daniel Larison On September 5, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

You do realize that I never say that Republicans are the only ones that refuse to compromise, right?

Republicans in Congress have openly pursued a strategy of opposing Obama across the board, which no one denies has happened. It failed to block most of the major legislation favored by Democrats, but it reaped significant political rewards in 2010. I suspect it will not be nearly as successful in the future.

#7 Comment By Andrew On September 5, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

Daniel, as a policy wonk you’re over-thinking this. The “American people” don’t pay any attention to government, but instead place their trust in others to filter the important information and tell them the truth. Unfortunately, this trust is misplaced as these media commentators drive division in pursuit of ratings so they can sell more commercial time. As for those who criticize the parliamentary system, I wish we had one. The majority should have a clear path to enacting its agenda and then run on it. If the electorate feels that agenda has been beneficial then the majority party reaps the reward, or suffers the consequences if that agenda is seen as harmful. But most importantly, we need a system that doesn’t enable mindless obstructionists. In the US a major hurdle to enacting legislation isn’t just that it takes 60% to pass it, but it also takes 60% to repeal it or amend it if it turns out to have undesirable effects.

#8 Comment By Barry On September 5, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

Susan, just check the filibuster statistics, for a start. As for ‘Obama, for the most part, won’t even meet with leaders from the House of Representatives.’ – you qualify this with ‘for the most part’, so I won’t even ask for evidence.

‘ Every bill sent to the Democrat controlled Senate dies. ‘

If this was true, the government would have 100% shut down for good by now, so it’s clear that you are not speaking the truth.

#9 Comment By JonF On September 5, 2012 @ 9:53 pm

Re: While any turn away from the imperial presidency is nice, it also made Americans associate health care reform with congress.

Well gee, maybe Americans should recall that Congress is the body that writes laws, rather than regarding the resident as some omnipotent potentate who rules by decree.

Re: when all of the branches were Democrat Obama passed nationalized health care.

Huh? If you mean a healthcare bill that regulates healthcare at the national level, that’s happened before: HIPAA and SCHIPS were passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic President. Medicare Part D was passed by a Republican House divided Senate and signed by a Republican President.

But if you mean something remotely like Canadian single-payor, let alone the British National Health service– dude, that hasn’t happened here. Not at all.

Re: The New Democratic party doesn’t care what the people want.

I don’t recall the public clamoring for GOP-passed stinkers like the RealID Act or 2005’s bankruptcy “reform” either. The pot is calling the kettle black.

#10 Comment By Scott Locklin On September 6, 2012 @ 11:50 pm

Am I the only one who remembers 2000-2006? The Republicans had both houses (well, a tie in the Senate in the 107th Congress) and the presidency. That wasn’t a quick rejection.