Since 1968, there have been 14 years of one-party control of Washington
The pendulum swings quickly -- a great victory is all but guaranteed to turn back in the other direction
Unified governments are rare and fleeting in the US, and Republicans don’t have much time to make the most use of theirs. That doesn’t pertain just to this class of Republicans – it’s a pattern of recent history.
Right now, the GOP controls every lever of power in Washington – the White House and both houses of Congress. (Side note: nobody is supposed to control the courts). But Tuesday night’s Democratic romp in Virginia and New Jersey raises the probability of an anti-Trump backlash in 2018, and should drive home the idea that if these Republicans are going to deliver, it could be now or never.
That they could soon be in the position of potentially losing one or both congressional majorities should not be news, to them or anyone else.
Since 1968, there have been 14 years of one-party control of Washington. The pendulum swings quickly – a great victory is all but guaranteed to turn back in the other direction.
That’s how President Barack Obama went from a filibuster-proof Senate majority to a slim majority and a Republican house after just two years.
CNN political analyst Ron Brownstein wrote recently about why one-party rule doesn’t last. From his story:
“In an era of intense polarization, unified government unavoidably steers the governing party toward the demands of its most ideological elements, infuriating the other party and unsettling swing voters. The more the party in power accomplishes the more it antagonizes the voters outside of its coalition; meanwhile, its own voters are often discouraged by the compromises and setbacks that inevitably accompany governing. Call it the paradox of unfettered power.”
But Obama and his large majority had a clearer agenda than Republicans now and they acted on it despite lock-step partisan opposition. During the two years where they controlled everything in Washington, Democrats passed a stimulus bill, Wall Street reform and, of course, Obamacare – in hindsight, it is a remarkable string of policy achievements, whether you supported them or not. (Their attempts to pass a cap-and-trade bill to address climate change didn’t go quite as well.)
They also paid the price. Dearly.
The hammer dropped on then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s majority in the tea party wave of 2010. Suddenly, Democrats were full with their success and Republicans were hungry to undo it.
The next six years of the Obama era featured divided government and few major accomplishments. A bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform passed the Senate, but withered in the House without a vote. A grand bargain to deal with the deficit and debt died in its infancy. Something, anything, supported by Obama couldn’t get past a House that swept to power opposing him.
President George W. Bush came by his unified government differently. He enjoyed it briefly upon entering office when the Senate was split evenly, but then fell out of favor over education spending with Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords. Republicans (and some Democrats) were already most of the way there on tax cuts that were the major first initiative of the Bush administration. But Jeffords left the party in May of 2001 and the GOP lost its majority in the Senate. Bush got it back in 2002, after terror fears and the march up to the Iraq War netted Republicans seats.
That post-9/11 legacy colors most of Bush’s administration, but he did achieve other things, notably the expansion of Medicare to include a prescription drug program, signed in December 2003. Some Democrats supported it, but it occurred when Republicans controlled all of Washington.
Similarly, during the Clinton administration, some of his marquee successes – NAFTA, the Brady Act to institute handgun background checks, the Assault Weapons Ban, the Violence Against Women Act – came at the beginning of his presidency, before a Republican wave took Congress from Democrats in 1994.
What’s Trump got to show for his first year?
He’s still got a little bit of time, for sure. But it’s notable that most Presidents have a hard-earned win or two after a year or so of one-party rule.
President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Bill in November of 1993 with help from 15 Republican senators. He signed NAFTA in December 1993 after it got the votes of more Republicans than Democrats in the Senate. (Trump wants to renegotiate it.) Clinton also had policy wins with the crime bill, although that has grown controversial over the years.
Bush’s tax measure, which had support from 12 Democrats in the Senate and 13 in the House, was signed into law in June 2001, not long after Jeffords turned the evenly split Senate into a Democratic one.
Obama’s stimulus package was signed into law in February 2009, soon after he took office. But it took more than a year and plenty of political wrangling to pass Obamacare (March 2010) and Wall Street reform (July 2010). None of those Obama measures had Republican support, but then the Democrats didn’t need it because they started with such large majorities.
And while efforts under Trump to repeal Obamacare have sputtered, and pushes to build a wall on the border with Mexico and pass a huge infrastructure building package have stalled, Republicans do have a target: tax reform, long a priority of Republicans who want lower rates.
The question now is whether Republicans view their losses in Virginia as a message to put aside their concerns with the tax plan to get something done, or distance themselves from Trump and exert their independence. It’s a decision each lawmaker will have to make on their own. But the President’s party almost always loses seats in midterm elections.
According to Gallup, the losses are usually worse – an average of 36 seats! – for an unpopular President whose approval rating is under 50%. Trump’s most recent approval rating are in the 30s in most polls, including CNN’s, which had him at 36% this week.
Even if Republicans can hold the House, their power there could be diminished. And with losses in the midterms so likely, this isn’t about self-preservation, but rather achieving policy objectives and changing the way government works.
That’s why most politicians get in the game in the first place. And time is wasting.