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Divided We Stand

Do voters prefer a divided government?

November 7, 2000

Do voters prefer a divided government?

In the 32 years since President Lyndon Johnson retired, the Democrats have controlled both the legislative and the executive branches of the U.S. government just twice — during the four years of the Carter presidency and during the first two years of the Clinton administration. It has been 48 years since a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, enjoyed such power — and he had it for only two years of his eight years in office.

Divided government has become the American norm, just as the Founding Fathers intended when they built a constitutional system of checks and balances to prevent any future monopoly of power. If the Americans codified the system, it took the French to dream up a word for it — cohabitation. And, now, voters around the world appear to be opting for divided governments.

In France, with a Constitution designed by Charles de Gaulle to provide strong and stable government after years of unstable coalitions, power was supposed to rest with the President. Then, in the 1980s, French voters began to disagree. They twice imposed a National Assembly dominated by Gaullists and center-right parties on Socialist President Francois Mitterand.

Now the Gaullist President Jacques Chirac cohabits with a Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, and the two attend international conferences and summits together, as if nervous of letting the other one out of his sight.

In Germany, despite his party’s majority in the Bundestag, Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder now lives with an opposition majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of Parliament.

In Japan, the 50-year dominance of the Liberal Democrats may be waning, with recent polls showing the opposition poised to take over the upper house of the Diet. Even in Russia, where democracy is still in its formative stages, President Vladimir Putin (and Boris Yeltsin before him) had to live with a Duma in which the old Communists remain the biggest party.

The men who wrote the U.S. Constitution got the idea of divided government from Great Britain, where the House of Lords did not always agree with the House of Commons, and the assent of each was required for any new laws.

But in 1911, after a year of constitutional drama which saw repeated elections as the Lords blocked the Liberal party’s agenda, George V agreed to ennoble enough new Liberal lords to win a permanent majority. The mainly conservative House of Lords caved in and surrendered most of their powers.

Britain has been something close to an elective dictatorship ever since — until now, when divided government seems to be making a comeback. London now has a left-wing mayor who was elected even in the face of furious opposition from Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The Scottish and Welsh national assemblies are led by Labor majorities, but they have very different agendas than Mr. Blair. Polls even suggest that these local nationalist parties will fare well in Britain’s next elections.

The public likes divided government so much that across European Union last year, faced with 13 center-left governments in the 15 member states, voters stunned the pollsters and confounded their governments by electing a center-right majority in the European Parliament. It was the one forum where they could erect some kind of barrier against a center-left tide.

Critics of divided government say it produces ineffectual compromises at best, and gridlock at worst, like the partial closure of U.S. government agencies in 1995 when President Clinton refused to sign the Republican budget. Its supporters say that it blocks sweeping changes, encourages political foes to work together, and gives little-known opposition figures a chance to shine on a national stage.

American voters face an interesting challenge this week, because seldom have the two candidates been so close in the polls — and with such slim Republican majorities in Congress. The Democrats can regain control of both houses of Congress by picking up just six seats in the House and five in the Senate.

But the stronger possibility is that the Republicans hang on to both houses — and that U.S. voters have to wait until 2002 to calibrate their ballots to divide and conquer their politicians.