Divided Government Isn't Magic

Despite the fact that his No. 1 priority is the defeat of Barack Obama in 2012, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looks forward to the potential for divided government:

“Divided government is the perfect time to do big things, the perfect time,” Mr. McConnell said in a recent session with New York Times reporters and editors.

He cited three fairly recent examples of major legislative bargains that were struck with one party in the White House and another running things on Capitol Hill: the 1983 overhaul of Social Security negotiated between President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill; sweeping 1986 tax law changes; and the welfare reform package of 1996 negotiated between President Bill Clinton and Congressional Republicans.

This kind of “grand bargain” bipartisanship can work when both sides have the same goal in mind. In 1983, both sides wanted to save Social Security’s finances, in 1986, both sides agreed that the tax code had become too complicated, and in 1996, both sides were willing to move welfare away from its usual method for distributing benefits.

These days, both sides talk about protecting the safety net and reducing the deficit, but they mean very different things. Republicans have spent the last year pushing policies that would gut the welfare state, from Social Security down to Pell grants for lower-income students. Both House and Senate Republicans voted to support the budget “roadmap” by Representative Paul Ryan, which would gut Medicare with an inadequate voucher system, to say nothing of its massive cuts to existing social services. Likewise, congressional Republicans have voiced their support for Senator Pat Toomey’s budget and the House Republican Study Committee budget—both of which involve massive cuts to federal programs for children, the poor, the elderly and the disabled, to say nothing of huge cuts to existing entitlements, and massive tax breaks for the rich.

On the issues that would be ripe for a bargain between the two parties—entitlement reform, tax reform—there is almost no agreement. Democrats want to increase taxes on the highest earners and shore up the welfare state by expanding it, Republicans want to cut their taxes even further, and “fix” the welfare state by destroying it.

Here’s a prediction: If Republicans win the House and Senate -- but Obama remains in the White House –- we won’t see much in the way of deal-making between the two parties. Rather, we’ll see a repeat of the pitched partisan warfare that has defined Obama’s first term, as Republicans fight to dismantle an Obama legacy and Democrats scramble to defend it.