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In Praise of Divided Government:

As conservative blogger Ed Morrissey explains in this post, Democratic control of Congress has led President Bush to start cracking down on federal spending and blocking congressional proposals that spend too much. This is in sharp contrast to his approach when the Republicans still controlled Congress and Bush happily presided over an almost unprecedented explosion of federal spending. As Morrissey notes, congressional Republicans have also changed their tune, opposing new Democratic spending initiatives even though they were quite happy to spend huge amounts of money when they themselves were in the majority.

In a series of posts last September (see here and here), I predicted that the cause of limited government would be better off if the Democrats took control of at least the House of Representatives. I reasoned that Bush would be more likely to oppose new government programs passed by the Democrats than those advanced by his own Party. The Democrats, for their part, would be unlikely to enact new government-expanding initiatives advocated by Bush, such as the major expansions of federal spending and regulation that he pushed through Congress in his first term.

So far, this prediction has held true. Bush and the congressional Republicans have prevented the Democrats from passing most of their government-expanding agenda. The Democrats, in turn, have taken away from Bush the option of pursuing a big government agenda of his own (as he did in the first term with his prescription drug and education bills). Historically, divided government has been a boon for limited government, and the past year has been no exception.

There has been one other major benefit of divided government over the past year: it forced Bush to shift to a more effective strategy in Iraq. Ironically, it is a strategy (increasing troop levels; pushing for Sunni-Shiite political compromise) that many Democrats had rightly advocated in 2004-2005 but abandoned by the 2006 election. Had the Republicans held on to control of Congress in 2006, it is highly unlikely that Bush would have changed course on Iraq as radically as he did. In my pre-2006 election posts, I correctly predicted that the Democrats would not be able to force a withdrawal from Iraq and speculated that they might provide some "adult supervision" over the administrations' mishandling of Iraq's reconstruction. I did not anticipate, however, that Bush would change his failed policy as much as he actually did.

The current situation is far from ideal. I would much prefer a principled commitment to limited government over restraint induced by gridlock. On Iraq, a great many lives might have been saved had the Bush Administration pursued a reasonably competent strategy to begin with. And the successes of the "surge" might still turn out to be too little too late. Nonetheless, in both foreign and domestic policy, divided government has left us much better off than we were a year ago. If George W. Bush manages to avoid going down in history as a complete failure, he will have reason to be thankful for the "Texas whooping" he suffered in November 2006.

Cornellian (mail):
I would much prefer a principled commitment to limited government over restraint induced by gridlock.

We limited government types have to grab our rare victories anywhere we can.
12.16.2007 5:50pm
Cornellian (mail):
If George W. Bush manages to avoid going down in history as a complete failure, he will have reason to be thankful for the "Texas whooping" he suffered in November 2006.

That ship sailed long, long ago.
12.16.2007 5:51pm
Gaius Marius:
Bush is the GOP poster boy of a Johnny Come Lately with regard to fiscal conservatism. I curse him and his father for turning the once conservative GOP back into the eastern establishment brand of Rockefeller me too Republicanism.
12.16.2007 6:25pm
CrazyTrain (mail):
There's been no political progress in Iraq. The only "success" in Iraq is getting troop deaths down to 2005 levels, after they reached a peak in the middle of the surge. Iraq's a failure. Bush is a failure and has been an outright disaster for our country.
12.16.2007 6:25pm
LM (mail):

I would much prefer a principled commitment to limited government over restraint induced by gridlock.

And I'd prefer a democratic system of consensual and productive socialism. But human nature suggests and history confirms that we'll probably never see either one.
12.16.2007 6:45pm
MatthewM (mail):
CrazyTrain is a "denier." Troop deaths will be the lowest this month than at any time. Civilian deaths are down by at least 70 to 80 percent. Refugees are returning. The Iraqi economy is recovering. I suggest he abandon his ideological blinkers and join us in seeking total victory in Iraq, which, after all, is in his own interest as well as ours.
12.16.2007 6:56pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
CrazyTrain's assertion that U.S. troop deaths in Iraq have only gone down to 2005 levels is simply false. The Iraq Body Count -- no friends of the Bush administration -- gives complete lists and totals by months. The monthly averages are as follows:

2003: 48.6 (Mar-Dec)
43.4 (May-Dec only to omit the actual invasion)
2004: 70.8
2005: 70.5
2006: 68.5
2007: 77.4 (whole 11.5 months)
96 (first 6 months only)
52.4 (last 5.5 months only)
34.8 (last quarter -- 2.5 months)

The 2007 totals are 83, 81, 81, 101, 126, 105, 78, 84, 65, 38, 37, and 12 (so far: half month). If the December numbers continue the trend of the first half of the month and come out in the mid-20s, that will be the second lowest month ever out of 58 months. Only February 2004 was better, at 20. Contrary to the usual line that things have been getting steadily worse, the two months with the highest number of U.S. deaths were also in 2004: April and November.

To put it another way, someone has calculated that November's total of 37 was barely half of the previous low for a November (70 in 2006), and not much more than a quarter of the previous high (137 in November 2004).

Anyone who says that U.S. troop deaths in Iraq are "only . . . down to 2005 levels" hasn't done his homework.
12.16.2007 7:09pm
whoopdedoo:
As I have a number of relatives and friends who have been cycling through Iraq, I am quite happy that the US body count is down. However, it is a stretch to suggest that is indicative of any greater "success" in Iraq; perhaps the degree of failure has been reduced, but we are still expending US resources at a dramatic pace (anyone who is pro-limited government should be puking over the amount of waste there) with little to be seen for it.
With respect to the benefit of divided government, I think that is a myth. We still get bloated pork barrel legislation, but now instead of having to feed the leeches of just one party, accommodation must be made for both.
12.16.2007 7:47pm
LM (mail):

To put it another way, someone has calculated that November's total of 37 was barely half of the previous low for a November (70 in 2006), and not much more than a quarter of the previous high (137 in November 2004).

... and yet the average monthly death toll following the peak in May was 67.8 through the end of November. Or to put it one more other way -- what Crazy Train said. The point being just that statistics don't take sides in arguments. They're usually happy to be everybody's friend.
12.16.2007 8:02pm
wm13:
Obviously these counterfactuals pose unanswerable questions, but I question the assertion that Bush would not have changed course in Iraq had the Democrats not taken control of Congress in 2006. As I recall, Rumsfeld left immediately after the election. I think that a fairer reading of the historical evidence is that Bush intended to change course, but thought that dramatic changes immediately before the election would hurt the Republicans politically. His plan was to do nothing, in hopes that the Republicans would retain control of at least one house of Congress (which they might have, if not for the "macaca" incident), and then make dramatic changes.

That's my reading, anyway. Next week, I'll tell you Pericles's real plans, and the week after that, what Ludendorff really thought would happen in 1918.
12.16.2007 8:36pm
CrazyTrain (mail):
I have relatives in Iraq as well in the enlisted ranks so I have every interest in seeing troop casualties down.

The point however is that there has been no, none, zero political progress in Iraq this year among the Iraqis. Thus, our kids are dying for nothing, and yes, we can twist the statistics and focus on an outlier month, but the fact is that this has been as bloody a year as any for the United States in Iraq. Period.
12.16.2007 8:37pm
CrazyTrain (mail):
And, what is "total victory" in Iraq? Seriously. If someone can answer that question, I'd really love to know it.
12.16.2007 8:37pm
MnZ:

The point however is that there has been no, none, zero political progress in Iraq this year among the Iraqis. Thus, our kids are dying for nothing, and yes, we can twist the statistics and focus on an outlier month, but the fact is that this has been as bloody a year as any for the United States in Iraq. Period.


Short version: Who cares about the Iraqi people anyways?
12.16.2007 9:19pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
The statement that "there has been no, none, zero political progress in Iraq this year among the Iraqis" is, like the one about U.S. deaths, simply false. Just off the top of my head I can think of the following examples from the last few months. In no particular order:

1. Kurds and Sunnis have come to an agreement to share power in the ethnically-mixed city of Kirkuk, where it looked like violence was inevitable.

2. Iraqi oil production is now higher than it was pre-war, which is particularly impressive given that it is far easier and cheaper to wreck a pipeline than to repair one, and the insurgents have been doing just that as often as they can, with help from hostile foreign governments.

3. Although the central government has been unable to come to a formal agreement on sharing oil revenues among provinces and ethnic groups, revenues are in fact being shared without an agreement in ways that all sides seem to find fair. (Oil prices being sky-high probably helps: there's plenty to go around.)

4. Muqtada al-Sadr has been effectively marginalized, forced to disown his more violent followers as they are killed or captured by Coalition forces. He's had to hide out in Iran a couple of times and his demonstrations now attract far fewer followers than they did just a year or two ago.

5. Muslims have come to churches in large neighbors to urge their Christian neighbors to come back to Bagdhad.

6. Tens of thousands of refugees have returned from Syria and Jordan. There are still plenty of displaced people, but there is now far more inflow than outflow.

7. The Anbar Awakening has spread to several other provinces, where Sunni and Shiite sheiks have united to encourage their tribesmen to fight the insurgents.

If I had the time to do CrazyTrain's homework for him again, I could come up with more examples and links to back them up. But I find it tiresome to correct obviously false talking points.
12.16.2007 10:14pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
Divided government provides for checks and balances which the (unfortunate) two-party system has typically conspired to circumvent. In other words, if one party controls the legislative and executive (and ultimately control over the judicial branch will follow), the checks and balances and separation of powers built into the constitution will be avoided, circumvented, and ignored. The solution to this is not to have a winner-takes-all voting system, but a proportional one (I think one state, I want to say Maine, has such a system).

The one thing that bothers me is when people make comments like "Americans like divided government." No they don't. No American votes for party A for the executive and party B for the legislative in hopes of divided government. Everybody wants their party to have absolute control over both the exec and leg so they can get their agenda forced through, which always leads to disaster. Why? Because of what I just described, the constitution's system of checks and balances and separation of powers falls apart, it cannot withstand single-party control.

Bottom line is Americans don't like divided government, though divided government is the only thing preventing the last nail from being driven into the Constitution's coffin.
12.16.2007 10:16pm
Bretzky (mail):
Does anyone know if there is a difference between Democratic president/Republican Congress and Republican president/Democratic Congress?

It seems that the latter situation is the best chance we have for divided government after '08. The early odds have the Republicans with about a 1-in-20 chance of retaking complete control of Congress next year (1-in-8 of retaking the House), but with a 1-in-5 chance of retaining the White House.
12.16.2007 10:25pm
shua nedy (www):
I think GWB is acting less out of the reality of divided government per se, and more out of the realization that his policies had led the party to lose its base of support, and that folks generally no longer saw the GOP as. Thus he decided it was time to start listening to the McCain message on war and spending and salvage the future of the party by dumping Rumsfeld and getting out his veto pen. It was like a wake up call, both for policy and politics in the narrower sense. With immigration on the other hand, he, like McCain, tried to go ahead with it in spite of protest from the base because he had come to deeply believe in it, and also to achieve something historic in his second term.
12.16.2007 11:07pm
shua nedy (www):
*no longer saw the GOP as significantly more credible on these issues.
12.16.2007 11:09pm
Owen Johnson (mail):
Mr. Somin is speaking in ignorance when he asserts that divided government over the past year "forced Bush to shift to a more effective strategy in Iraq." All strategies require certain prerequisites to be successful. Prior to this year, these prerequisites had not yet been satisfied, hence the current strategy could not be employed. The previous "failed" strategy bemoaned by people like Mr. Somin who are ignorant of how these things really work was anything but -- it created the conditions that are allowing the current strategy to succeed.
12.16.2007 11:19pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
It sounds like a plan to me. Things like this happened in the early Reagan years. On the one hand, he vetoed appropriations bills as he probably couldn't have done if they'd been voted out by his own party. On the other hand, Demos often put a hold on new hires, figuring that they shouldn't create new government jobs that his administration would fill with republicans. (Not knowing that repubs never really knew how to run a government, with the result that demos were as likely as not to get the resulting jobs).

My friends at Interior, after Clinton was elected, discovered a plan (clue: when photocopying your machiavellian moves, do NOT leave the original sitting on the photocopy machine mostly used by career employees) to purge the Senior Executive Service, on the assumption that after 12 years of GOP control, it must be full of conservatives and Repubs. The plan was abandoned after the Clinton incomers discovered, to their shock, that despite a dozen years of GOP control, the ranks of SES were overwhelmingly liberal Demos.

I wonder if a graph of federal spending, with lines or color areas to depict divided vs. undivided government, would reveal trends to support this?
12.16.2007 11:23pm
LM (mail):

The early odds have the Republicans with about a 1-in-20 chance of retaking complete control of Congress next year[...]

The election is still almost a year off, so the roughly 5% payoff for a successful bet on the Democrats placed today will be just marginally more than you'll earn in that time by buying a 12 month CD. Which means they're really not even taking bets against the Democrats. They're just willing to hold your money for a year, and so long as the Democrats win they'll give it back to you with the interest you could have gotten at your bank.

Not a pretty picture for the GOP.
12.17.2007 12:03am
rarango (mail):
What Cornellian said--it may not be pretty but it avoids a lot of mischief.
12.17.2007 9:16am
bellisaurius (mail):
So, for an independent with libertarian tendencies, the real key to voting is strategic voting, be it as simple as "republicans own house, vote for democratic legisator", or more complex like "dems likely to win presidency, vote for republican house and/or senate".

Given that avowed dems and republicans are roughly in the 30-40% range each, strategic voting actually means my vote should count as about three to five times larger if I go for a major party (because 20-40% of the vote isn't a given for one party or another), and therefore more dear, and quite useful at ensuring gridlock, which ends up as a more attainable goal than a third or fourth party of about 10-20 members in one of the legislative branches acting as a kingmaker for various legislations -which would be ideal, but thus far unworkable because of the winner takes all system, and that most people do game the system and won;t vote third or fourth party because they believe others won't, which effectively wastes their vote.

I wonder, if a hundred years down the line, teh voting habit for either/or will change as people see there are thousands of others who feel the way they do -and since most people tend to lose track of relative sizes when numbers turn large- they'll vote for the party they want in hopes that it will have a chance, except in cases like France where someone like LePenn is running.
12.17.2007 12:33pm
TokyoTom (mail):
Ilya, you've got the lingo right, but the spelling wrong. "Texas whupping" is correct; see MSNBC's spelling and listen to Tom Delay's pronunciation: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15622165/

"Whup" is a variant of whip brought to us by Scots; a "whoop" is a type of vocalization, like a yell or a holler (not to be confused with the "hollers" that they call small valleys in the Appalachians).
12.19.2007 3:39am