NEAL CONAN, host:
And now, the Talk of the Nation Opinion Page. Over the weekend, John McCain warned voters about the dangers of putting Democrats in control of both Congress and the White House. We can't let that happen, he said. For their part, Democrats are thrilled at the opportunity to win the presidency and a filibuster proof majority in Congress. But Jonathan Rauch argues that if liberals hope for historic breakthroughs on issues such as health care and climate change, the best thing to do is to vote for John McCain. One party rule, he says, is ineffective and inefficient. Do you agree? Divided government is best for the country. 800-989-8255. Email us firstname.lastname@example.org. Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer for the National Journal and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. His latest column is called "What a perverse voter to do?" And he joins us from the studio at the Brookings Institute. Nice to have you on the program again.
Mr. JONATHAN RAUCH (Senior Writer, National Journal): Hi. It's great to be here, Neal. Thanks.
CONAN: And you wrote that voters like divided government which is shorthand for when one party controls the White House and the other one controls at least one house of congress. Now, if Senator Obama wins and it's what all the polls are looking right now, it's a week away, but nevertheless, that will not be the case. Democrats already have majorities in both houses of congress and they look to be widening.
Mr. RAUCH: Well, that's right. You will get a unified government which you had in the middle four years of the Bush administration with I think, bad results from the electorates' point of view. What you had in the first two years of the Clinton administration, again with bad results from the voters point of view. So there's a real risk that the Democrats would be setting themselves up for kind of owning all the nation's problems while the Republicans get to walk away. So they might want to be careful what they wish for here.
CONAN: And the other part you pointed out is that when a party controls both houses of congress and the White House, it tends to rule them from the middle of its party rather than from the middle of the country.
Mr. RAUCH: Yes, it almost has to, Neal. The country is a centrist country but the middle of each party base is well to the left and the Democrats case or well to the right in the Republicans case where the country is a whole. So if you control congress and the presidency and the other party is on the sidelines, you need basically almost every vote in your party to get anything passed Congress which means you've got to run the country from the left or from the right. It's very, very difficult to get by partisan consensus which is how you get a centrist solution through in this country. So you tend to get veering way off to the left or right and the voters really don't like that.
CONAN: And you also would argue that in fact, legislation that does carry, push through by one party or the other, well, it tends to be either unpopular, short-lived or both.
Mr. RAUCH: Yeah. If you look at the big reforms that have gone through, the big successful long term ones, they have tended to have happened under two-party control like tax reform in the 1980s and welfare reform in the 1990s. And the reason for that is that both parties buy into them. Each party is there at the table negotiating them. And so they both have a stake in its success. When one party tries to do it, as for instance, George W. Bush did with social security or Bill Clinton did in 1993 with health care, you got one party trying to ram it through the other sitting on the sideline. But these issues are just too big for one party to handle by itself in most cases.
And if it does manage to bring something through, it's going to do so against the ill wished of half of the country. So it's not going as popular and sustainable. I should add, Neal, just for the record by the way, I'm a journalist, I'm not telling anyone who to vote for and this is only of course one factor out of many in determining how people may want to vote.
CONAN: But you do argue that McCain in the White House with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, if you're interested in climate change for example or health care, that might be the best solution.
Mr. RAUCH: Well, it's very interesting that the two biggest agenda items on liberals' plate right now, the big world changing reforms are climate change and health care. Well, on climate change, Senator McCain and Senator Obama are very similar. So you get bipartisan climate change legislation with Senator McCain. On health care, you've got Democrats who are interested primarily in expanding coverage and Republicans who want to reduce costs. Well, the way you got a comprehensive reform is to staple those together and of course, that's what naturally tends to happen if you get President McCain and a Democratic Congress working out a compromise. They'll do some of both. So from a liberal's point of view, you know a divided government might be the really good way to get bipartisan reform through on the big issues on your agenda.
CONAN: Liberals have other issues, too and those aren't the only ones. But...
Mr. RAUCH: No, there is the Supreme Court.
CONAN: That's right, there is the Supreme Court and you could see how immigration might get ugly.
Mr. RAUCH: Well, yes. Though of course, immigration is an issue that splits the Republican Party and the Democrats aren't completely united on either.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on this conversation. Our guest is Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal, 800-989-8255, email us email@example.com. And why don't we begin with Graham and Graham's with us from Norman, Oklahoma.
GRAHAM (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.
GRAHAM: I just - I'm complete dissatisfied with the Republicans and I think that it's time to give someone else a chance and I think that a completely Democratic government might be a really good thing for this country and I will take my comment off air.
CONAN: OK. What issue in particular you're most interested in, Graham? CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call, Graham. Appreciate it.
GRAHAM: Thank you.
CONAN: And get a response from Jonathan Rauch.
Mr. RAUCH: Yeah, what Graham expressed there is very much the dynamic of the country. Normally the voters tend to prefer divided government and the last three times we had unified government, we saw within two or four years that the voters came along and fixed that in 1980, 1994, 2006. But this time, what's happening is what seems to be in many cases, overriding this general preference for divided government. It is a specific backlash against the Republicans who a lot of voters are just very unhappy with. So I think you could well see the needle shift way over to the Democratic side of the line. The questions is, how then do the Democrats managed to govern in a way which against all the recent historical experience won't either overreach or go too far toward their parties base and away from the center.
CONAN: You mentioned recent political experience and the example that a lot of people are making is they look at the economic, it was, it's not recent, it's back to 1932 when of course, the Democrats also won a thumping victory in the presidential and Congressional races that year and interesting quote today from Senate historian, of course, the biographer of Linden Johnson, Robert Caro who pointed out that one thing that big majorities for one party enable you to do is move through emergency legislation big things very quickly.
Mr. RAUCH: Well, I just point out that we just move through an enormous emergency Bailout of the financial sector on a bipartisan basis and in fact, political scientists who account legislation find that actually you get more done typically under divided control than on unified control because both parties have a stake in getting something through whereas with unified control, you'd have in this case, the Republicans sitting on the sidelines being obstructionists so that the Democrats wouldn't have anything to go home and boast about. So often, divided government these days can be more effective.
CONAN: Now, let's get to Nellie on the line. Nellie calling us from Columbus in Georgia.
NELLIE (Caller): Hey, Neal. I just wanted to comment that I agree with the journalist and I believe there has to be checks and balances in our government. I don't believe that either party should have too much of extreme control.
CONAN: And what worries you in this particular political context?
NELLIE: Where am I?
CONAN: Yeah, no. I mean, what worries you if the Democrats should have the Congress and...
NELLIE: The tax increases. I know that in Obama's you know, set on a $250,000 magic number but I don't agree with that. I believe that you know, my medium small income, I will experience tax increases as a single individual. I don't have any write offs to protect me.
CONAN: So that the promises made during the campaign do you think will melt before those big majorities in Congress.
NELLIE: I believe we've already promised too much money in too many other places for him to be able to promise me these things, you know, offerings.
CONAN: OK. Nellie, thanks very much. Appreciate it.
CONAN: And well, tax policies not one of those things you write about Jonathan Rauch but it is one of the things they disagree on.
Mr. RAUCH: Well, that's right. You know, these are such good calls because they highlight so many of the key concerns in the electorate in this election and fiscal policy is one of those. One of the interesting things again about divided government is an economist by the name of Bill Niskanen. A former acting chief of the Council of Economic Advisers look back over a period of 30 or 40 years, and found that when you've got divided government, you get lower deficits and more fiscal restraint, and the reason for that seems to be that the parties check each other's tendencies to do a whole ton of spending or a whole ton of tax cutting. So they tend to bargain each other again more toward the center and toward a small fiscal gap. So if you're a fiscal conservative, there again, there is a case for divided government.
CONAN: And we're talking about Democrats controlling the White House and both Houses of Congress. Actually - we're actually talking about a number and that number is 60. Either party would need 60 votes in the United State Senate to have a filibuster proof majority. The Democrats hope to get 60. There's an outside chance they might be able to do it and if they achieve that number or something close to it, Jonathan Rauch, I assume your scenario gets even darker.
Mr. RAUCH: Well, I don't know about darker or lighter, it depends on your point of view. But the number 60 although important, tends to be overrated a bit because you're still going to have wavering Democrats on the margins. So 60 isn't a magic number all by itself unless you can get 60 exact Democratic votes on every bill. And that's very hard to do and if you try to govern that way with the same party ramming everything through and just shutting the minority party out completely, the Democrats risks further isolating themselves from the electorate and further having to govern from the center of their own party because they'll have to do everything with only Democratic votes. Well, that's just very, very difficult to do and that's really the end of bipartisanship as we knew it. So again, you know, obviously Democrats want to get as big a Senate majority as they can but they ought to be careful here what they wish for.
CONAN: We're talking with Jonathan Rauch, a senior writer for National Journal and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. There's a link to his article, "The Perverse Voter's Guide" at our website and npr.org/talk, and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's get Henry on the line. Henry from Baton Rouge in Louisiana.
HENRY (Caller): Yeah, I disagree with the young man. I was just thinking because I - it doesn't really matter. Look at economy for eight years, what have they done? Bush has been trying to grab more and more power during the Iraq War. What has he done, you know people's right hasn't scaled out more and more and more. Look at the social security they want it privatized if they have - had chance to do that. The war tripled like I did know the whole, no, people's security. There's so much, that's will have gone wrong if Bush was allowed to be, to have more and more power that he asked his - but they do have. So I totally disagree if the borders want to throw the Democrat out, let him throw them out in the next four years, what's - let them choose what they want to choose. I think this is just a small scheme by the Republicans as they try to, you know rehabilitate McCain seem that they will eventually lose.
CONAN: Yeah, It is as its being played out in the election campaign, Jonathan Rauch. You're not just on the presidential side, you see people like - oh supporters of Senator Dole in North Carolina saying this is the issue the Democrats will run through this massive legislation and if she loses her seat. So Henry does have a point there.
Mr. RAUCH: Yeah. Again, he speaks for quite a number of voters. I should say again, just to be very clear because this is my job, I'm not endorsing McCain or Republicans or anybody. But you know, I kind of agree with Henry there but I think what you need to do is look a little bit harder at George W. Bush's eight years because there are two very different things going on there. In the first two years, he's governing primarily with the Democratic Congress. He puts through the Patriot Act which is bipartisan, and the education reform which is bipartisan and at the end of two years, he's a very popular president. He's still governing mostly from the center. Then, he gets a Republican...
CONAN: There was that 9/11 thing in the Senate. Yeah.
Mr. RAUCH: Yeah, yeah and that of course, is part of it. But having both parties in Congress I think clearly helps you build that consensus. Then there's the middle four years of the Bush period when he wins control of both houses of Congress, and he veers way to the right. He does - goes to war with Iraq with the support really primarily of only one party and tries to do legislation bill after bill on a one party basis and becomes immensely unpopular. Never really recovers from it. The last two years, the Democrats win control again, and he moves back toward the center. He begins talking to Iran, for example, he begins changing his position on global warming. It's too late for him to recover his popularity. But politicians react to their environment and an environment where they have to deal with the other party is very different. Remember, politicians don't compromise because they want to, they compromise because they have to and that happens when they've got to make a deal to win.
CONAN: Let's get Mark on the line. Mark calling us from Denver in Colorado.
MARK (Caller): Oh yeah, hi. I'm calling - my question is about leadership and whether or not sound leadership would be able to overcome some of these potential problems that the guest sees as - that would result from having one party rule essentially.
CONAN: Jonathan Rauch, what do you think?
Mr. RAUCH: You know, what an interesting question. Boy, you got great callers, Neal.
CONAN: We got good listeners.
Mr. RAUCH: You know, that's - yeah. Here the question is can Obama - can a President Obama should he be elected, be different enough from an ordinary politician to resist what will be the overwhelming temptation to use his majority to try to put through everything on his own party's terms. History shows you can almost never do that. Your base things, we won this election, we didn't lose it. We should do things our way. But Obama's an interesting figure. He knows a lot of history. He's clearly very conscious of the blind alley of pure partisanship. He's campaigned against it. To some extent, voters who vote for him in the center are going to try to say, well, you know, this might be a guy who can resist and understand the temptation for one party rule. So maybe he is. We of course, we won't know that and unless he becomes president.
MARK: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Mark. As you look ahead, you mentioned some of the problems, the pitfalls of this - again the idea of privatizing social security if it was not legislatively dead as an idea, it's - I don't think it's every going to come back after the last month but that's the sort of overreach that might seem reasonable when you're sitting in a party caucus and then, actually thrown out to the American public provokes a negative reaction.
Mr. RAUCH: Well, that's exactly right. You know, people forget these days socially Democrats and Republicans in Washington are pretty isolated. They tend to talk mostly to each other. You can - if you're a partisan-Republican, you can go all day, sometimes all week without really having a long discussion with the Democratic policy. So it's very easy to get inside this partisan bubble and believe, well, darn it, we're right and forget about the other half of the country.
CONAN: Jonathan Rauch, thanks very much for your time.
Mr. RAUCH: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Jonathan Rauch, senior writer for National Journal. A guest scholar at the Brookings Institution argued that one party rule in Washington is inefficient and ineffective. The perverse voter's guide. You can see a link to it at our Web site at npr.org/talk. Tomorrow, the presidential dream team, who would you want to advise the new president? This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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