The last 65 years of presidential history show one clear, consistent preference on the part of the American electorate: the public feels vastly more comfortable with divided government, and grows worried and disillusioned under one-party rule. This conclusion should shape political strategy for both Republicans and Democrats as the two parties prepare for an epic struggle in 2010.
The Democrats, for instance, will commit a serious blunder if they put too much stock in the permanent popularity of President Obama. Of the twelve chief executives since the end of World War II, only three Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton -- retired from the White House with high popularity ratings.
Among the other nine, three were voted out of office (Ford, Carter, the first President Bush), one was driven to resignation in disgrace (Nixon), two withdrew from expected re-election drives because of early primary losses and pervasive public hostility (Truman and LBJ), one died at the hands of an assassin while facing a potentially tough re-election battle (JFK), one skulked quietly back to his Texas ranch with disapproval from nearly three-quarters of his fellow citizens (George W. Bush), and one more (Barack Obama) already faces a deeply polarized electorate after just one year of his presidency.
What political magic allowed Ike, Reagan and Clinton to escape the dire fates of their colleagues and, despite their share of mistakes, scandals and personal failings, to conclude their two terms with potent public support that resembled their first months in office?
One crucial factor shared by the three fortunate White House survivors was that they all presided over eras of divided government with opposition parties controlling at least one house of Congress during most or all of their presidencies. For Republican Dwight Eisenhower, the Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate for six of his eight years with huge majorities his last two years. Under Reagan, Democrats controlled the House for all eight years of his Presidency, and the Senate for the last two years. Bill Clinton began his term with solid Democratic majorities in both Houses, but after his crushing mid-term losses in 1994, he spent his last six years--- 75% of his presidency-- working with energized Republican majorities in both Senate and House.
Its not an accident that all three of the most durably popular presidents of the last three generations have learned to cope with two-party rule: American voters clearly prefer dividing the power in Washington to giving either Republicans or Democrats full authority over both Congress and the White House. Since the end of World War II, a single party controlled the two elected branches of government only 28 years, while the electorate chose to divide authority between the two big parties for 36 years.
This deep-seated American instinct expresses both common sense and Constitutional principles. Despite the distortions of political correctness and a struggling educational system, most citizens still learn something in school about checks and balances the effort by the Founders to use the Presidency as a counterweight to the power of Congress and to count on Congress to keep the President in line. James Madison and his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention felt a deep distrust of concentrations of power and deliberately designed the executive and legislative branches to battle one another. They also disliked the idea of organized political parties dreading the dangers of faction taking precedence over the public interest, or one big political alliance seizing control of all operations of government and imposing its agenda on a vanquished opposition. They devised a system that required caution and compromise and worked against rapid, reckless, sweeping change.
The electorate rightly grasps that too much clout in the hands of a single party especially a party dominated by a single charismatic leader defeats the whole idea of checks and balances. How can the Congress block even the most wrenching changes and radical schemes by an ambitious president like Barack Obama, as his own party enjoys big majorities in both houses? Even the most popular and revered presidents, presiding at a time of grave national crisis, face powerful backlash when they try to go too far in the name of reform. In reaction to FDRs court packing scheme (which threatened the independence of the Supreme Court) and continued economic reverses at the height of the Depression, the public provided the opposition Republicans with an almost unimaginable gain of 80 House seats in the Congressional elections of 1938. Though the outbreak of war in Europe allowed Roosevelt to win election to two more terms from the frightened public, the voters clearly preferred a vital, competitive opposition party to the battered, moribund GOP of the first years of FDRs presidency.
Recent polls showing Republicans either leading or tied in generic Congressional ballots express the same reaction to the audacious presidency of Barack Obama: most Americans want more balance in Washington, D.C. and prefer to stop or at least slow down the dizzying pace of costly change. On health care reform, cap and trade, taxes, spending, Medicare, social issues, foreign policy and much more, the public prefers backlash to whiplash. The American people yearn for the more measured pace and less ideological agenda of divided government, even if they dont express that yearning consciously.
Barack Obamas grandiose agenda offers the GOP a grand opportunity in the upcoming Congressional elections. Republicans shouldnt attack the President himself, who remains personally popular (according to all the polls) even while the voters disapprove of his policies. In any event, President Obama will retain the White House until 2013 and fulfill the term he was elected to serve, so the opposition and the public ought to make the most of it by providing President Obama with the balance and even keel that he desperately needs. The GOP should field candidates who promise to pull the president back to the center, back to the mainstream and who decry the ultra-liberal Pelosi-crats who have been dragging him to the extreme left. The nation will benefit, and Barack Obama will probably lead more effectively, when hes forced to cobble-together consensus with a revitalized opposition, rather than competing with his Democratic colleagues in Congress over who maintains the purest commitment to the doctrinaire liberal agenda.
Republicans can plausibly argue that a GOP comeback would help President Obama find a pragmatic, unifying path rather than continuing to pursue the shrill hyper-partisanship of a shallow hack like Harry Reid. If he continues with big Democratic majorities, he may go the way of over-reaching, imperious, ultimately discredited presidents like Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter (whose 292 House seats gave him a veto-proof, two-thirds majority) or even, arguably, George W. Bush. If his supporters want President Obama to enjoy the consistent popularity of practical, deft, consistently popular chief executives like Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton, they should welcome a GOP takeover of one or both Houses of Congress in 2010.
A Republican comeback a year from now wouldnt destroy the Obama presidency and it may, in fact, promise the best hope for saving it.