Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Carnival of Divided Government Quadrâgintâ (XL)
Special "Fight Procrastination Day" Edition

Welcome to the 40th edition of the Carnival of Divided Government - The Special "Fight Procrastination Day" Edition - posted a mere two weeks late.

World Headquarters for the DWSUWF Blog has temporarily relocated to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, coincident with the end of the trout and beginning of the bird hunting season. With the fall color change just starting, it is a fine time to be in the north woods. Given these distractions, your loyal blogger is pleased with getting this compilation out at all.

Carnival of Divided Government

As explained in earlier editions, we have adopted Latin ordinal numeration to impart a patina of gravitas reflecting the historical importance of the series. In this the Carnival of Divided Government Quadrâgintâ (XL), as in all of the CODGOV editions, we select volunteers and draftees from the blogosphere and main stream media writing on the single topic of government divided between the major parties (leaving it to the reader to sort out volunteers from draftees). Consistent with this topic, the primary criteria for acceptance in the carnival is to explicitly use the words and/or concept of "divided government" in submitted posts. A criteria that, to our endless befuddlement, is ignored by many of the bloggers submitting posts, which sadly results in The Dividist reluctantly ignoring their fine submissions. Among the on-topic posts and essays fished from the blogosphere we choose our ten favorites (more or less) for commentary and consideration. We hope you enjoy these selections.

First up, blog favorite Stephen Slivinski, updating his excellent 2006 work on Divided Government with an op-ed in the Washington Examiner - "Want Spending Discipline? Wish for Divided Government."
"This isn’t a new idea, but it’s one that’s rightly begun to get some more attention. If history is any guide, the data show that divided government has quite a good track record at moderating the rate of spending increases. Updating the analysis that first appeared in my book on a related topic (Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government, published in 2006) I find that the past three years hasn’t changed the fact that tamer-than-average rates of spending growth – after adjusting for population growth and inflation -- still correlate with periods of divided government. Here are the numbers: Between 1965 and 2009, the average growth rate of real per capita federal spending in the divided government years was 1.9%. For the years of united government, that average was 3.1%."
The beauty of the Divided Government voting heuristic is that it is based on empirical historical evidence. If the batshit insane spending in Washington is an important issue to you (and it should be) - there is exactly one way to vote that is unarguably, factually, historically documented to restrain the growth of federal spending. That vote is for divided government. That means voting for GOP Senators and Representatives in 2010 and - if they take either house of Congress - voting to re-elect Barack Obama in 2012.

Truth be told, after the panicked spending spree by the Bush/Pelosi/Reid divided government regime of 2008, I thought this particular divided government voting rationale might have outlived its usefulness. It certainly would have, if Barack Obama lived up to his campaign rhetoric of moderation and fiscal responsibility. We were disabused of any such notion with the first major action of the Democratic One Party Rule - passing a trillion dollar (fully loaded) stimulus bill written by Nancy Pelosi's House of Representatives. With that one partisan pork-laden stroke of the pen, Obama and Democratic One Party Rule spent more money than eight years of the Iraq war. As Slivinski cautions us in this article - divided government can still be bad, but one party rule is far far worse. Always. Every time.

Why does divided government work to restrain and moderate government? Why does the American electorate seem to prefer a divided federal government? I could speculate about the mechanism, but nobody really knows. It is enough for me to know that it works to restrain the growth of leviathan. Full stop. But for many scholars and political scientists, it is a fascinating topic. Most recently...

Meg Sullivan offers some PR for UCLA Professor Tim Groeling's new book "When Politicians Attack! Party Cohesion in the Media" claiming that "Obama's best chance for reelection? Democratic losses in 2010":
"Groeling argues that achieving unified government, in which one party controls both the presidency and Congress, ends up damaging the governing party's brand in the eyes of the same voters who will later decide whether they stay or go."Every time you see divided government, it sticks around for a while," Groeling said. "But every time you have unified government, it breaks up very quickly, and the news media have a lot to do with it." Groeling bases his views on a painstaking analysis more than 4,000 hours of political coverage that aired on network television from the Ronald Reagan through the George W. Bush administrations...

"Unified government gives the governing party total responsibility, but that means they have total accountability," he said. "If they fail to deliver on even one of their promises, they have no one to blame but themselves. In other words, if something goes wrong for the governing party in unified government, the firing squad forms a circle. That sort of ugly intra-party feuding turns out to be exceptionally damaging to their standing with voters."
Professor Groeling's analysis is interesting and he may have the mechanism right or wrong, but it matters not to me. You don't need to understand nuclear fusion in a star to know that it is smart to wear sunscreen. And you don't need to understand the motivation of the voters or why divided government controls federal spending to know that it is smart to not give one party all the keys to the castle.

Andrew Gelman at The Monkey Cage puzzles over poll results that show voters saying Democrats are better at governing, but planning to vote Republican anyway. He finds no paradox in "Voters hate Republicans but are planning to vote for them anyway: The non-paradox":
"Those 10% or so of voters who plan to vote Republican—even while thinking that the Democrats will do a better job—are not necessarily being so unreasonable. The Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress, and so it’s a completely reasonable stance to prefer them to the Republicans yet still think they’ve gone too far and need a check on their power."
W.W. blogging at Democracy in America for The Economist, quotes Andrew Gelman (among others) and agrees with his analysis in "Disliking Republicans, voting for them anyway":
"In this case, however, it is likely that a bum-swap will deliver divided government, a prospect that warms my anti-partisan heart. Divided government has many under-appreciated virtues. As the Cato Institute's William Niskanen has pointed out, divided government is the best recipe for fiscal restraint—something America will urgently require, come the recovery. Divided governments are also less likely to charge into war. "In 200 years of US history, every one of our conflicts involving more than a week of ground combat has been initiated by a unified government," Mr Niskanen observes. Though the electorate is mostly unaware of these benefits, the historical record suggests a fairly stable and long-standing preference for relative gridlock. Perhaps this explains the otherwise puzzling polling data. In any case, an era of peaceful belt-tightening sounds pretty good, no?"
You betcha. It sounds pretty friggin' good to me. But I don't understand one thing. Why do pundits insist that this particular 10% of voters, the most independent voters in the electorate, the swing voters who actually think about and change their party preference from one election to another - these particular voters - Why assume they don't understand how their vote results in divided government? Why do pundits refuse to consider the possibility that some of us may know exactly why we vote for divided government and vote for it consciously?

Michael Cohen presents - "Exposing The Clinton Defense" posted at Double Dip Recession, looking to debunk some of the comparisons frequently made with the Clinton administration, including....
"Divided government is good for the economy since those idiots in Congress can’t get anything done. Little was done during the Clinton years and little will be done in 2011-2012
In general, I agree with this statement by economic bulls. However, the problem is that we do not face a discretionary spending crisis. Rather, it is the mandatory entitlements set up by Bush, Obama, and decades of fiscal insanity. As boomers approach retirement, the demands on Medicare and Social Security will balloon and will exacerbate our structural deficit
Divided government means there will be no solution for this, and we will become closer to the fiscal endpoint like Greece and other fiscally irresponsible countries. Except, unlike Greece, we are too big to bailout…"
Michael makes some excellent points debunking the invalid comparison of higher tax rates during the Clinton administration as a justification for higher tax rates with the economic situation we face today. However, he misfires on this last point highlighted above.

He conflates Divided Government with "getting nothing done". political scientist David Mayhew has shown empirically and convincingly that, in the modern era, there is no discernible difference in legislative productivity during times of divided versus one party rule. As David Mayhew documented in his seminal work "Divided We Govern", there is no empirical statistical evidence for more or less productivity out of Congress during periods of divided or unified government in the modern era. None. No correlation. No causation. In fact, Congressional productivity in "getting things done" is more closely correlated with a "pervasive public mood for change." To bring this back to Michael's point - when there is a real demand from the public to fix our structural deficit, it will happen regardless of whether there is a united or divided government in power. In the meantime, a divided government will help keep the problem from getting worse.

Michael Gerson, writing at MySanAntonio, offers some cogent observations about what passes for a Democratic Party "message" this election season, but then goes on to misunderstand the dynamic that drives political compromise when he incorrectly concludes "Divided government won't work with Obama, Boehner":
"Democratic leaders and their supporters approach the November elections with a lumpy mix of messages. It can't be as bad as it looks (it is) and maybe losing the House would be a good thing for Democrats (it isn't) and Americans are spoiled, ungrateful brats (not really an electoral winner)...

Barring some decisive intervening event, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner seem fated to be awkward partners in the public good. Beyond November, there will be a single political question: Can divided government work? The answer: Probably not. On the Republican side after the election, ideology will be ascendant while congressional leadership will be weak. Since no Newt Gingrich-like figure has emerged to direct the revolution of 2010...
There are a few areas where Obama and a Republican Congress might be surprised by agreement. Both endorse expanded trade, making the passage of three currently stalled bilateral trade agreements likely. Both would probably support budget process reform. Both may find a common interest in imposing budget caps on discretionary spending — largely symbolic measures, since the real deficit problem lies elsewhere. But these would be exceptions — like Christmas cease-fires during years of trench warfare...

If the Republicans win big in November, the comparisons to 1994 will quickly be raised. After a series of bitter confrontations, Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton found agreement on a balanced budget and welfare reform — successes of divided government. But this progress required a strong Republican leader and a flexible, willing president — neither of which is likely to emerge from the 2010 election."

I generally like Gerson's stuff, but the conclusion to this piece is simply incoherent. He acknowledges that there are areas of agreement between a Republican Congress and an Obama Administration, yet concludes that divided government will not work based on - what??? - his intuition of the personalities involved???

Compromise happens when there is no other choice. Anyone who remembers Clinton and Gingrich as cooperative bipartisan leaders has a serious memory deficiency. Yet they accomplished a great deal. The deciding factor will be the American people - as it always has been and always will be. When the hue and cry from the electorate gets loud enough, the bullshit stops and the compromise starts. This was true with Gingrich and Clinton. It will also be true with Boehmer and Obama.

To that point, Andrew Romano and Daniel Stone at Newsweek have a very different view of the Boehner/Obama dynamic. They identify potential House Speaker John Boehner as "The Necessary Man" and suggest we "Ignore the fake tan. John Boehner could actually be a good speaker of the House.":
"Boehner and Obama won’t have the same kind of chemistry, but they will face similar political pressures. If the GOP takes over, the president will have just suffered a major rebuke at the polls, and he will need to prove to a skeptical country that he’s not out of touch. Republicans, meanwhile, will no longer be able to respond to Obama by shouting “hell, no,” as Boehner once did; mainstream voters will expect them to contribute, and will hold them accountable if they don’t. According to Gingrich, Boehner is even better suited to this process—the slow, methodical give-and-take of divided government—than he was. “If I was a roll-out quarterback who occasionally threw an interception,” Gingrich says, “then John is a natural head coach. He knows how to keep the team together and win the game by methodically picking up four yards on every play.”
Problem solving and real compromise result in better legislation. Real bipartisan compromise only happens when both parties have a share of power and a seat at the table. Divided government ensures everyone has a seat at the table. QED.

Jason Pye at United Liberty climbs the pulpit, quotes David Harsanyi, and delivers a sermon on the virtues of divided government saying "America needs a divided government" :
"Divided government is really the best recipe for good government and a strong economy... While spending under George W. Bush and a Republican-controlled Congress was out of control, under Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and a Republican-controlled Congress, spending grew by 1.5% per year. This is lower than the annual growth in spending under Ronald Reagan. Tea partyers and those of us in the freedom movement should be preaching this as loudly as any other issue."
Hallelujah! Say it brother. Say it loud and say it long! I believe in the power of divided government!

Metavirus at Library Grape is increasingly unhappy that the divided government meme continues to gain traction despite his oft expressed disdain, prompting him to ask whether we would not be better off abandoning our constitutional checks and balances for a more Euro style parliamentary system - "If Divided Government Is So Awesome, Why Do All Other Rich Countries Eschew It?":
"So there's been a bit of an extra helping of "divided government" pseudoanalysis going on here lately. I don't have much time at the moment to do a whole post but I just wanted to throw out a question to everyone: If divided government is so demonstrably awesome, why do all the other rich first world countries have parliamentary systems that prevent such a thing from occurring?"
Metavirus claims to be an independent* (EDIT - Note correction in comments) . But after reading through his comments on that post, I cannot help but note that all of his arguments are indistinguishable from the mantra of a partisan hack - to whit -"My party is good (competent/acting in good faith). Your party is evil (incompetent, acting in bad faith)." I don't know whether he is being disingenuous or just oblivious to what he is saying, but - If it walks like duck, and quacks like a duck, then that is good enough for me to start looking for some Peking sauce. A partisan, by any other name will still only enjoy the sweet smell of his preferred partisan poop. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends are partisans.

I say to you Metavirus - Be proud and revel in your partisan nature!

That out of the way I will acknowledge that, under the snark, Metavirus is posing a pretty interesting question. A question about the distinction of and our preference for a unique checked, balanced, and divided government vs. the more widely adopted parliamentary system. This is a topic that deserves a separate post, but until I get around to that, I'll weigh in with a few thoughts here.

It seems to me the crucial distinction is that our constitutional government was designed from the ground up to be a divided government and to hinder united unilateral government action (explained beautifully by constitutional architect James Madison in Federalist #51).

Historian Joseph Ellis coined a wonderful phrase that succinctly sums up how our unique constitutional government is conceived. He calls it the "enshrinement of argument". The Constitution promotes divisiveness, opposition and obstruction - by design. It was designed that way to protect the rights of individuals and minorities against the tyranny of majorities, executives, or the judiciary. If and when partisan unity overrides the checks and balances built into the Constitution, then our government is not working as designed.

A parliamentary government, by contrast, is designed to elect a unified government for as long as the electorate considers said government to be representative of the majority, whether that government is comprised of one party, or two, or more. That unified majority then may run roughshod over the minority in pursuit of its majority policy preferences - by design.

One could argue that a divided government is contrary to the spirit and design of a parliamentary system, while a unified government is contrary to the spirit and design of the U.S. Constitution.

And one can also see why many liberal Democratic partisans pine so wistfully for a parliamentary form of government.

Rereading Metavirus' post, my curiosity was piqued at what prompted his derisive "pseudo-anaylysis" characterization. Looking a few days earlier on the group blog, I found...

Gherald at Library Grape offering a summary and some real analysis on why divided government works for us, while making "The Case For Local Control And Federal Inaction":
"This is a huge and diverse country. I think it's safe to say no other nation has as many different cultures and economic and political views represented within itself as does the United States.

The European Union is the most comparable bloc in scope, but few people think Europe would be better off with a stronger central parliament that sets tax rates and health care and welfare policy across the width of the continent. Why then do so many think 51% majorities in the US Congress should be setting policy for the other 49%? Why should Washington be setting policies that are uniform from Maine to California, Florida to Alaska?

Progressives are wont to bemoan that California, with 69 times Wyoming's population, has but an equal voice in the Senate. And obviously coasties are known to joke about the insignificance of 'flyover' country. But on reflection, how many are so vainglorious as to think representatives from California should be setting economic and social policy in Wyoming?

...I am pleased by the upcoming return to a divided federal government that will keep itself in check, leaving more to local control."

We wrap this edition with Conor Friedersdorf blogging at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish and "Stating the Obvious":
"In the course of American history, if either liberals or conservatives disappeared entirely from the American scene, leaving the right or left to pursue their best ideas and most flawed excesses alike, this country would be in far worse shape than it is today. And anyone who thinks that completely vanquishing "the other side" in American politics would produce good results for very long is naive at best.

It is to our collective benefit that the competing ideological factions in the United States operate as the best versions of themselves. Criticism that helps them get there is the most useful. On individual matters, one or another faction occasionally ends up being definitively right (or catastrophically wrong). Still, on the whole our ideological opponents are more help than hindrances compared to a world where they didn't exist. This seems obvious to me, but I thought I'd state it since a lot of people disagree, or at least talk and act as if they do"

I hope Conor will forgive me copying his short post in toto as I simply could not decide what to edit. Conor eloquently expresses the essence of why divided government is worthy of support as an ideal in and of itself.


Traditionally, we conclude this Carnival by including one "off-topic" submission, as a grudging acknowledgment and proxy for the many off-topic submissions received. Off-topic in this context means - no mentions of "divided government" or gridlock.

For the third edition in a row, we again present Madeleine Begun Kane (who practically owns this spot) as she presents Apathy, Schmapathy --- Dems Still Have To Vote! posted at Mad Kane's Political Madness.

With that we'll conclude this edition.

Look for the next edition of The Carnival of Divided Government ûnus et quadrâgintâ (XLI) - Special Perfect 10 You Are Not Going to See This For Another Century Numerology Edition - to be posted at exactly 10:10:10 on 10-10-10. Submit your blog article at carnival of divided government using our carnival submission form.

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

Carnival of Divided Government


Metavirus said...

hey! point of order on this: "Metavirus claims to be an independent". I claim no such thing. However, maybe you were confused by my several explanations of how my partisan affiliation has changed over time. I used to be a raging liberal, then later I morphed into a strident libertarian for a long while, and now I've come back around to being a pretty strong liberal/progressive. If you take a random sample of my posts over the last few months, you'll find the latter point quite obvious -- and one that I am obviously not trying to hide.

to your main discussion of my post on Library Grape, the essence of what I was talking about is why nearly every other rich western democracy chose a system of government that doesn't provide for divided government. i don't really know why but posing the question elicited some interesting responses. it is also an interesting thing to note that most of the other countries that chose the presidential form of government are all either third world countries or some form of pre- or future- autocracy.

mw said...

Mssr. Virus,
Thanks for your comment. I have updated the post to reflect your preferred label of rabid, knee-jerk, liberal (or something like that).

If current projections hold up, I will probably be looking to you for guidance after the election. Republicans retaking either house and restoring divided government means that I will once again be changing teams. Re-electing Obama will be the only way to maintain divided government beyond 2012, so I will need to work on getting my knee-jerk reflexes back.

Metavirus said...

lolz. the vast majority of my thinking is not knee-jerk. if it was, i probably wouldn't have the self-awareness to realize when the ideology I currently subscribe to is no longer useful. it has happened before and i'm sure it will happen again. you're always welcome at Library Grape - where we love to helpfully point out all the crazy coming from the teabaggers, religious nuts and their various hangers-on

Tully said...

Trouts and birdz? I love trouts and birdz! Dove season is still ongoing here, but of course all the dumb ones are now dead. (Some of the dumb ones are hiding out in my freezer ... )

Tully said...

More cogent and on topic, the true worth of divided government in a pluralistic system is this: It trends strongly to government only acting on those issues on which there is common ground between factions and strong agreement among the electorate.

Unified government, on the other hand, trends strongly to cram-downs of extremely partisan "solutions" for issues on which there is very strong disagreement, and often less than anything even remotely resembling majority approval among the electorate.

Divided government is therefore much more democratic than unified government can ever hope to be.

Unified government almost guarantees the tyranny of the minority to some extent, whereas divided government can only lean towards the tyranny of the majority -- and our legal system is strongly stacked against tyranny of the majority. Just as our political system is stacked towards correcting tyranny of the minority.

Why, you'd almost think the Founders had designed it that way ...

Myself, I am a fervent supporter of King Log.

Metavirus said...

@Tully - I definitely understand the general argument. I just find it fascinating that none of our rich world allies thought that our system was a good one to use when they were choosing either a presidential or parliamentary model.

Tully said...

Leaving aside that I was commenting on divided government in general and not on your post, MV ....

To state the obvious, our "rich world allies" are not us. They have different traditions, values, and histories. The number of them whose current forms of government were designed after a nasty-but-successful colonial revolution against an oppressive parliamentary system is nil -- we are unique in that regard. The only one with a government older than ours (or even close, most are post-WW2) is Great Britain, whose parliamentary system we revolted against.

In any case, they are not us (nor do I desire to be them). Why they choose what they choose for themselves is something to ask of them, though I suspect "tradition" would figure largely in the replies.

None of them is exactly like the others, either. Even among the parliamentary systems there is wide diverence in applied form, from the constitutional monarchies to the democratic republics.

Metavirus said...

@tully. Understood.

mw said...

I'm back and thought I should close the loop on the outcome for this year's "cast and blast".

Apparently there are no stupid grouse in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Or at least, none that managed to fly in front of my shotgun. Flushed a bunch, but no boids. OTOH, I've been fishing in the Escanaba River since since grandpa put me on the bank with a hook and worm almost 50 years ago. This year I landed the biggest trout I've ever pulled out of that river, a nice 19' Brown.

In the meantime, with no blogging help from me on the political front over the last few weeks, the GOP seems to have improved the odds of restoring divided government in the mid-terms. Perhaps I should spend more time time fishing and less blogging.