US politicians are kept in check when the government is divided

This Election Day, the punditocracy is closely watching the off-year contests, thinking they predict how the president’s party will do in next year’s congressional midterms. If so, things don’t look so hot for President Barack Obama.

In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine has done surprisingly well with his “make fun of the fat kid” re-election strategy, yet portly Republican Chris Christie retains a narrow advantage.

In Virginia, the GOP’s Bob McDonnell is comfortably ahead in a state that Obama won by more than 200,000 votes. And a Sunday poll had Conservative Party upstart Doug Hoffman 16 points ahead of his Democratic opponent in New York’s 23rd Congressional District.

If history is any guide, Democrats have reason to worry about 2010. In every midterm election but two since the end of World War II the president’s party has lost seats, and it’s a fair bet that the blue team faces double-digit losses next year.

In fact, in the past half century, voters have opted for divided government more than 60 percent of the time. Why shouldn’t we, given the horrors of one-party government? Whenever one faction controls both elected branches, checks and balances disappear. 

My colleague Bill Niskanen, former chairman of President Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors, points out that since the start of the Cold War we’ve had only a dozen years of real fiscal restraint: six under President Dwight Eisenhower and a Democratic Congress and six under President Bill Clinton and a GOP majority. 

The Framers tried to craft a constitution that gave politicians proper incentives to check each other. “Ambition [would] counteract ambition,” as James Madison saw it, with congressmen keeping presidents honest and vice versa. 

Things haven’t worked out as planned. Too often, party loyalty trumps constitutional fidelity, as evidenced by former House Speaker Denny Hastert’s self-image as a “lieutenant” of President George W. Bush rather than a guardian of congressional prerogatives. 

But when different parties hold the legislative and the executive, the Madisonian system works better. Divided government leads to many more congressional investigations into presidential misconduct and, as two University of Chicago scholars demonstrated recently, “the White House’s propensity to exercise military force steadily declines as members of the opposition party pick up seats in Congress.”

When politicians wax sentimental about “the wisdom of the American people,” you should hold on to your wallet. If we’re so smart, who’s to blame for the clowns we elect? 

But when it comes to separating the purse and the sword, we may be brighter than expected. A good chunk of us deliberately split our tickets. In 2004, two political scientists crunched the numbers, estimating that more than 20 percent of American voters were “cognitive Madisonians.”

Ironically enough, if things were easier for the Republicans, the embattled Obama might have a better shot at a successful presidency. Divided government tends to boost the president’s approval rating.

It’s no accident that the few modern presidents who left office with high popularity — Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton — had to battle a Congress controlled by the opposition.

No doubt Obama’s pulling for Corzine, Deeds and Owens today, and for a Democratic majority in 2010. But if he knew what was good for him — and for the country — he’d silently root for divided government.

Examiner columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”

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