Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Divided Government

Neil will have a more complete analysis of the debate in the morning, but here I want to register a reaction to a point that at least 3 Republican-leaning pundits made. Each said he was surprised that Sen. McCain didn't offer the blessings of divided government as a basis for supporting him, McCain. With Nancy Pelosi in charge of the House and Harry Reid in charge of the Senate, the argument would go, Americans need a Republican President to check the Dems.

It strikes me that McCain simply could not make this argument for two reasons:

1) It would essentially concede the House and Senate. Of course we know that the Dems will almost certainly add to their majorities in both chambers but every seat in the House is up for election and enough seats are up in the Senate to make it theoretically possible for the Republicans to take control there. The only way for McCain to say there ARE going to be Democratic majorities in both chambers is by relying on polls, but if he has confidence in polls concerning Congress, why not have confidence in the polls that say he's going to lose the Presidential election? Further, running at the top of the Republican ticket, McCain cannot afford to alienate the members of his own party running for Congress.

2) The idea that Americans really like divided government is simply a myth. Divided government is largely a product of political diversity tracking geographical diversity. Most voters don't split their ballots. To be sure, some independents do split their ballots, but usually because of preferences regarding particular candidates, not out of any sense that divided government is a good in itself. Even if we concede that there are some number of voters who would be amenable to an argument that divided government is a good in itself, that argument would seem to have the most salience when you think that government itself is a problem. When, as now, the biggest issues are how government can help, divided government, which tends to produce gridlock, is unattractive. The argument that we need a Republican to stop the threat from government might appeal to the Republican base, and in other times it might appeal to some independents, but it is a losing argument now.

Posted by Mike Dorf