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Argument: The worst US presidencies involved divided government

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"Down with Divided Government". The New Republic. 27 Oct. 2008 - Now let’s look at the more disastrous moments in the history of American administrations--where charges of impeachment were brought, and recriminations paralyzed the government. That would have to include the administrations of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton--all instances of divided government. I’d also add the last two years of Wilson’s second term when divided government (and Wilson’s illness) set America on the track of irresponsibility in foreign and domestic policy. So if you look at America’s moments of glory and ignominy, the conclusion is inescapable: divided government is a curse, not a blessing, and should be avoided, if at all possible.

Of course, this account is too simple. If you want to probe the question more deeply, I would recommended The Politics Presidents Make by Stephen Skowronek. Skowronek, a Yale political scientist, distinguishes two kinds of circumstances that have led to crippled government. In the first, a president from an opposing party, but who nevertheless represents the wave of the political future, confronts a congress wedded to the past and determined to frustrate him. You could put Nixon (who was the harbinger of an emerging Republican majority) and Clinton (who was the harbinger of an emerging Democratic majority) in this group. Both these presidencies degenerated into chaos in their second terms.

Then, there are presidents who, in Skowronek’s words, are “affiliated with a set of established commitments that have in the course of events been called into question as failed or irrelevant responses to the problems of the day.” Skowroneck numbers among these James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. These presidents don’t necessarily have to contend with a Congressional opposition in power, but like Hoover and Carter in their last two years, with a nascent and growing opposition in Congress that constitutes a functional majority in opposition to what they want to do. These presidencies have also proved disastrous.

A John McCain presidency would clearly fall in the latter group, and McCain, unlike Hoover and Carter, would have to face clear and unequivocal majorities in Congress united against him. Rather than promising success, that kind of divided government would promise chaos and failure. But don’t tell that to the proponents of divided government.

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