The Washington Times

Democrats and Republicans alike like to think that they are playing for all the marbles. The Holy Grail in American politics looks something like this: Your party controls the White House, has a majority in the House of Representatives, and a big enough majority in the Senate to ensure that you can confirm any judge acceptable to your own party, thus extending your political reach in the nominally apolitical judiciary branch over time.

I keenly remember the atmosphere in Washington in January 1993 as well as its polar opposite, that in January 1995. In January 1993, Democrats behaved as if, at last, with their control of the White House and Congress, the natural order of things had been restored. Many were beyond smug: It was as if Republicans didn’t exist – and rightly not. By 1995, after the GOP took Congress for the first time in 40 years, many Republicans had come to regard the Democratic Party in the past tense. An irrelevant Bill Clinton would be swept away in 1996, and that would be that.

Now, the first thing that needs to be noted about this Holy Grail of politics is how rarely the American electorate delivers it as an outcome. Divided control is far more common. Some have argued that divided control is something the electorate consciously desires, not trusting either party with full run of political decision-making for the country. I don’t think that’s terribly likely. In the first place, the hard-core partisans of each party – the “base” vote, about equal in size between the two – do not hold this view, and together, they outnumber the undecideds, independents, and leaners who might more reasonably be expected to harbor such a view.

A better explanation along these lines, I think, would be that when a party achieves complete control (or thinks it is going to, as in 1995), the result is often political incaution that lets loose the party’s less attractive tendencies, around which interest groups from the other side can build a negative case. The result is voters saying, “Whoa. I don’t like that.” Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health care task force and reform proposal is an example. So was the “Republican Revolution.” So, I think, would have been the GOP’s 2001 decision to push an unprepared Washington into the subject of energy policy with a secretive White House task force chaired by the vice president – except that the war on terrorism intervened.

But I think there is a still deeper structural explanation for the phenomenon of divided government. It seems to me there’s a good case to be made that a political party can have either a presidential focus or a congressional focus – or neither – but not both. Wanting the White House most will inevitably lead to certain decisions by key party figures that will make winning congressional elections harder. And vice-versa when the emphasis is on Congress.

This is not just a matter of where resources flow, though obviously that’s part of the picture. It’s also about outlook. The fact is that a presidentially focused party is about the political fortunes of one person, who needs to command a majority. A congressionally focused party thinks differently across the board. In the absence of a unifying personality there have to be unifying ideas – a sense of direction with criteria for progress – as well as a marketing plan sensitive to the nuances of local constituencies.

It has often been remarked, accurately, that in the postwar period through the first Bush administration, the GOP was a presidential party and the Democratic Party a congressional party. Has that changed?

In 1992, the GOP switched its focus from “presidential” to “neither,” as the leading player in the drama somehow couldn’t articulate why he should have a second term. Perhaps this paved the way for the GOP’s congressionalist tendencies to come to the fore under the supervision of Newt Gingrich, leading to a congressional victory in 1994 that has held through now.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton in 1995-96 managed to persuade Democrats that his re-election in 1996 was all that stood between the party and political oblivion. Hence the Democratic focus on the presidency that year. And Republicans faced a brutal choice that year, with congressionalists at party headquarters ultimately deciding to cut loose the failing presidential campaign of Bob Dole to focus on re-electing the GOP Congress. Mr. Dole desperately wanted a Clinton administration failure to deliver welfare reform as a campaign issue. The GOP Congress instead passed it again, giving Mr. Clinton one last chance to sign it in time for the election, which he did.

What happened in 2000? I think a presidentially focused party went up against another presidentially focused party. The result was a tie. The real test now is how much the GOP cares about preserving a congressional majority when it again holds the White House – assuming, that is, Democrats return their sights to Congress.