Divided Governance Remains the Rule
WASHINGTON — A REPUBLICAN president. A Democratic Congress. It's been the American way for most of the last 22 years - but does it make sense?
The American public thinks so. Survey after survey shows that by approximately a 2-to-1 margin, Americans believe it is better to have Republicans in control of one branch of government and Democrats in control of the other.
That could be one reason Democrats have trouble occupying the Oval Office, while Republicans make little progress on Capitol Hill.
Morris Fiorina, a Harvard professor who has studied this American phenomenon, says voters probably don't intentionally "put a ball and chain around George Bush's ankle by voting for Democratic congressmen."
But it does work out that way.
Russell Ross, who recently retired as a political scientist at the University of Iowa, says he thinks many voters decide: m going to vote for a good, solid, liberal Democrat here in the House and Senate, but I'm going to put the executive branch in control of the Republican Party." He concludes: "I think they like and enjoy divided government."
Two other analysts take issue with that view, however.
Hugh Winebrenner, a professor at Drake University, says the public's so-called affinity for divided government is "a creation of the media.... It may be true, but it's unsubstantiated."
Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, debunks the notion that people walk into the polling booth with the idea that government should be divided. He explains:
"People very clearly think about different issues when they think about the presidency than when they think about Congress. The things they think the president does are things they think Republicans are better at. It is not a coincidence that the party that's best at controlling inflation has the White House. And the party that's best at protecting the common man ... has the Congress."
Although divided government seems a recent phenomenon, Dr. Fiorina of Harvard says there's nothing atypical about it in American history. There have been three main eras of divided government: 1840 to 1860, when the nation was badly split by slavery; 1874 to 1896, when the country was torn by social issues such as immigration; and 1968 to the present, when the public wanted a strong defense and low inflation, but also favored programs like Medicare, social security, and environmental protection.
After close study, Fiorina suggests there are at least a half-dozen reasons for it. One major factor seems to be that incumbents in Congress have built-in protection, which makes it harder to oust the Democrats who run the House and Senate. In addition, Republicans often fail to put up candidates as attractive as the Democrats.
The Republicans also seem to be suffering from other factors, such as the professionalization of state legislatures. When legislators were part-time, low-paid lawmakers, sometimes only Republicans could afford to hold office. But when they started earning higher salaries after World War II, common folk like teachers and union leaders could run and hold office. That increased the pool of politically-active Democrats in the state legislatures who were ready to move up to Congress.
At present, there seems to be no indication that divided government will end soon. In fact, state government, just like Washington, is recently becoming more and more divided, with the governor and the legislature of different parties. The reasons aren't clear.