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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Divided Government

Ronald Brownstein says that the decline of faith in parties may have contributed to the rise of divided government:

One party simultaneously controlled the White House and Congress for 50 of the 58 years from 1896 through 1954. Republicans held all of Washington's levers for 14 years under three presidents (1896-1910) and for another 10 under three others (1920-30). Democrats held unified control for six years under Woodrow Wilson, and for 14 under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman (1932-46). Truman and Republican Dwight Eisenhower then managed another six years of unified government between them. During the 1960s, Democrats held the House and Senate throughout the eight years that John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson sat in the White House.

Occasionally during these periods, the governing party lost effective control of Congress (as FDR did after 1938). But mostly, this enduring authority allowed the dominant party to pass, implement, and entrench an agenda that set a distinct and durable direction for the country. From Jefferson and Lincoln to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, presidents from these periods of consolidated control have usually left the deepest marks on America.

But since 1968, only Jimmy Carter (1976-80) and George W. Bush (2002-06) have secured unified control for as long as four consecutive years. (Bush added another four months in 2001 until a party-switcher cost Republicans their Senate majority.) Bill Clinton managed only two years with undivided authority until the GOP captured both congressional chambers in 1994. This fall, Barack Obama also could lose one or both chambers after just two years. No other president in this period ever achieved undivided control. Overall, one party has managed unified control for only 12 of the past 42 years (plus those four months).