President Lincoln proclaimed, A house divided cannot stand. President Lincolns prediction about his literally divided country proved correct, but over the years, divided governments have been able to work effectively to shape policy. In recent times, the compromises struck between President Clinton and his counterparts in the Republican House of Representatives led to effective welfare reform, a balanced budget and a popular tax code, among other policies that proved to benefit the country.
Starting in January, the challenge of government will be a new one. The Democrats have imposing majorities in both the Senate and the House, and President-elect Barack Obama won a commanding Electoral College mandate. Starting in January, we will no longer have a government divided between the two major parties, but rather a government completely under the control of the Democratic Party. How the Democrats choose to approach their hold on power will determine both the future of Democratic control of government and the future of the country.
First, the Democrats must be careful to recognize that their electoral mandate is not an endorsement of a wholly liberal approach to government. While Democrats in campaigns across the nation stressed tax cuts for the middle class and an end to our foreign policy debacles, it is hard to make the case that the public voted for the Democrats because they were enamored with liberal policy ideas. Keep in mind that even two years into renewed Democratic control of Congress, the public approval of Congress hovers in the 30 percent range. Rather than winning votes for what they stood for, in many cases Democrats won because of what they were not: President George W. Bush.
Voters correctly understood that while the Democrats had some influence to shift policy, as long as President Bush was in office, his power of the veto meant that the Democrats could not fundamentally change the course of the nation. Fed up with the Bush years, the electorate turned to the Democratic Party to shift course to a more centrist path than the far right line hewn by the Bush administration.
Governing in a centrist fashion will be difficult for the Democrats. Because the Republicans will likely refuse to vote for many of President Obamas policies, the Democrats will be forced to muster majorities in their own party to pass Bills. This poses a major problem. If the Democrats need a supermajority of votes from their own party to pass legislation, then the Democrats will be forced to govern from the center of the Democratic Party rather than from the center of the country.
Is governing from the center of the Democratic Party inherently problematic? No. But given the magnitude of the challenges facing the nation, it is worth remembering that both sides of the ideological divide have good policy ideas. Governing from the center means more bright people agree that any given policy is likely to work, and thats exactly what we need right now.
The Democrats will need to resist the temptation of shutting the Republicans out of the process, just as the Republicans shut out the Democrats when they held control. Democrats will need to make a conscious effort to speak to Republicans, even when they may not need their votes. Intransigent Republicans who may be obstructionist will have to be reasoned out of their partisan stance for the good of the country.
The burden of ensuring such bipartisanship occurs will fall partly on the Republicans, but largely on the shoulders of the head of the Democratic Party, Barack Obama. He will have a responsibility to keep dialogue with the other side alive, while simultaneously reigning in overly ideological agendas in his own party.
One party rule of government often leads to the implementationof half-baked ideas (see most of Bushs presidency). As a nation, we simply cant take that risk at this point in history. President-elect Obama promised a government that would bridge partisan chasms, despite the difficulties involved. Lets hope he lives up to his word.