The American people, more populist than not, never like “big”anything. That is, they don’t like “big government,” just as they don’t like “big business.” To be sure, neither “big” actually goes away, and so it’s no wonder that Americans seem permanently riled up. We can also observe that the folks don’t like “big politics” either—that is, the idea of one political leader or party having too much power. So whichever party is seen as “in charge”—well, that’s the one that’s headed for a fall.
The 2018 midterm elections highlighted this resistance to concentrated power. On Tuesday, the voters showed that they prefer divided government; that is, they simply don’t trust either party to have all the marbles in Washington, D.C.
It’s been this way for a long time. Since the end of World War II, power has been divided in Washington—that is, one party controlling the White House, and the other controlling at least one chamber of Congress—for 43 out of 73 years.
Specifically, midterm elections give voters a chance to “send a message” to the president, whoever he is, by depriving him of allies in Congress. Since 1945, the average loss in the House for the party in the White House has been about 26 seats. And now, with the convening of the 116th Congress in January, political power looks to be divided for the next two years, too.
There’s an enduring logic here: namely, opposition to big, including big ambition. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected to the White House by a substantial margin—seven points in the popular vote, and a two-to-one margin in the Electoral College. Moreover, his fellow Democrats gained large majorities in the Senate and House. Perhaps understandably, Obama and company believed that they had a mandate to do big things—and that’s where their trouble started.
Most notably, the Democrats pushed for the Affordable Care Act. After all, national health insurance had been a Democratic dream for decades, and now was their chance. Yet once the bill was labeled “Obamacare,” it became personalized, a symbol of Obama’s perceived grandiosity—and so it was easy for the GOP to rally the country in opposition. Thus, Obamacare became a huge negative for Democrats. The legislation passed in March 2010, and just eight months later the Republicans won a big victory in the midterm elections, gaining 63 seats in the House and thereby flipping the speakership.
The size of their 2010 congressional victory gave Republicans hope that they could follow up with a presidential victory in 2012—but that was not to be. Instead, Obama was re-elected comfortably, even as House Republicans, too, were re-elected. In other words, the voters, in their collective wisdom, were perfectly happy seeing the two parties share power. Some said this was a formula for gridlock, yet evidently the folks liked that formula.
Tuesday’s results fit that pattern. Even if it didn’t feel that way, due to intense opposition from the media and the establishment, the Trump-ified Republicans have held the formal power in Washington these last two years—and now they don’t. They will soon have to share it with, most likely, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (And yes, it’s more than a little ironic that Obamacare, once a burden to Democrats, is now a boon.)
Of course, this latest power division shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, the leader of the Republican Party, President Trump, simply isn’t all that popular—nobody can say that the American people have unreserved confidence in him. In 2016, he was elected with less than a plurality of the vote, and while there’s nothing disqualifying about that—it happened four other times in U.S. history—it was still a challenge for him to get himself above water once he was in the White House. Trump went into the midterms with his approval rating in the 40s and his disapproval rating in the 50s. So it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that his party had a mixed result. Indeed, this is one election where the pollsters and forecasters were correct about the big outlines of the election—the Democrats did win the House, even as the GOP held on to the Senate.
And yet, as Team Trump thinks about the 2020 election, it should remember that a midterm bump—or even a serious defeat—has little predictive value as to the next election. After all, the voters delivered a severe shellacking to the Democrats in 2010, and yet Obama won his second term. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s Democrats were clobbered in the 1994 midterms, and yet Clinton himself won in a landslide in 1996—even as the GOP held on to its congressional gains. So again, the voters are perfectly capable of splitting their tickets, and thereby splitting power.
In fact, it could even be argued that presidents stand to gain from divided power. Yes, the loyal opposition, now empowered, can block the president’s agenda. And yes, the opposition party can use its investigative authority to subpoena administration officials, thereby making their lives miserable.
Yet at the same time, the spectacle of such hostility can give the president a useful foil. So in 2020, for example, Trump, if he seeks re-election, can point to Pelosi and say to voters, “Who do you want: her or me?” That’s the sort of confrontational dynamic that Trump in particular thrives on.
Moreover, the Democrats in Congress might conclude that for all of their dislike of Trump, they rather like the idea of a Republican in the White House—so that they, too, have a foil. After all, another way of saying that presidents tend to lose support in the midterm elections is to say that lawmakers in the president’s party lose their jobs. Ouch! In other words, from a career point of view—and certainly from the point of view of holding the majority—it’s safer to be in the opposition.
So we can see how both parties can fall into a comfortable rut: one holds the White House and the other holds the Congress. In their respective positions, arrayed in opposition to each other, they actually, in effect, reinforce each other. Neither party wins big, but neither party loses big—there are worse things than a draw. So maybe that’s why, as we have seen, divided power is the mode in D.C.: the two parties tacitly like it that way.
As for the voters, well, they might not know about all these tricky inner dynamics. But the one thing they do know, for sure, always, is that they don’t like “big.” And on Tuesday, once again, they busted big politics.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.