It appears the electorate is going to do something it rarely does any more: decisively give the levers of power to one political party. There are ironies to this. Risks, too.
The modern American voter has been notoriously miserly in awarding trust to either party. Elections have been close, and government has been divided. Ronald Reagan never governed with the backing of a House and Senate controlled by his own party. Neither did George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton had just two years of a Democratic Congress before the 1994 midterm denunciation. George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote in 2000, did have four years where Republicans had control of the House and, very tenuously, the Senate; Republicans solidified control of the Senate in 2004, but lost it (and the House) two years later — big time.
If Obama does win, it is likely to be accompanied by strong Democratic gains in the House and Senate. The historical parallel would seem to be 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter replaced an unpopular Republican president and expanded existing Democratic majorities in Congress.
So where's the irony?
Right here: The Democrats are not exactly swimming in the affection, respect and trust of the citizenry. They are simply, at this precise moment of war and hard times, disliked far less than George Bush's Republican Party. That's enough to win some elections, but not yet a sturdy foundation for effective government. As conservative columnist Michael Gerson put it, "Following an electoral victory, Obama is likely to face a massive challenge: The least responsible, least respected, least popular political institution in America — the Democratic-led Congress — would also be the most emboldened."
Gerson, once a speechwriter for the current president, overlooks the obvious truth that the "least responsible, least respected, least popular political institution in America" right now is actually the Republican-led White House. But he has a point.
Just as voters are not exactly embracing with happy hearts the whole Democratic team and platform, they also are not, it seems to me, wittingly voting for undivided government. Politics, like the free markets of Adam Smith, tends to be guided by an "invisible hand": Countless individual decisions and actions together express a collective logic and even wisdom. Just as voters over the past 30 years haven't explicitly voted for divided government and gridlock, they are not now explicitly changing political philosophy and embracing the idea of giving one party all the power. If the Democrats do capture firm control of Congress as well as the White House, they would do well to avoid the M-word: mandate.
This is especially true because there is no very clear shared notion of what Obama-ism or Democratic-ism are yet. There is no tight ideological coherence, for example, between Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama. They have positions and oppositions. Obama's positions are mostly very conventional Democratic ones — not neoliberal, not left fringe, but a standard, post-Tip O'Neill docket. Yet his rhetoric turns on the word "change," and he is himself a change: He would be the first president of not just his race but his generation. It is an exciting mix, full of potential — but it's also misty, lacking the philosophic clarity of Reaganism or even "third way" conservatism. There is, in other words, nothing to give a mandate to, at this point.
This, obviously, leads to the risks of undivided government at this precarious moment. The Democrats have a vague road map and a difficult course to navigate. The financial disaster has handcuffed discretionary spending, ensured deficits till hell freezes over, shafted young Americans who hoped to retire some day and, on top of it all, there's Iraq. And Afghanistan.
History seems to indicate that recent presidents have not flourished under unified power. Carter had it, proclaimed a "malaise" and helped it to come true. He was out after four years. Bill Clinton had it for two years, crashed health care reform, lost control of Congress and spent the rest of his term getting popular by fighting Newt Gingrich but passing little major legislation. George Bush had it for six years and, well, you know what happened. It hasn't been pretty.
Obama seems well-equipped to avoid the errors of Carter and Bush. But who knows: Presidents have not fared well in the post-Watergate period. The country would benefit from a break in that pattern.
The conservative impulse is to prefer do-nothing government to do-something-dumb government. In this sense, American voters have been conservative — and cautious — in most recent elections. If one party is awarded control of the federal government in 2008, history suggests it should proceed with humility and a nonpartisan spirit long missing from Washington. With luck, this message will be written clearly by the electorate's invisible hand on Election Day.