Election 2020: The Up Side of Undivided Government


As of late October, the political modelers at FiveThirtyEight gave Democrats a 72% chance of pulling off the trifecta — winning the White House and majorities in both Houses of Congress — on November 3.

My visceral response to that possibility is negative. Excluding outlier possibilities like a Libertarian landslide, I’ve always considered divided government the best outcome.

Gridlock, in theory, is good. If an opposition party controls either the White House or one house of Congress, that theory goes, it can thwart the other party’s worst ideas through presidential veto or the opposition-controlled house refusing to pass legislation.

But in the 21st century, that theory hasn’t proven out very well. Instead of one party resisting the other party’s worst ideas, it tends to trade its acquiescence to those ideas for getting some of its own worst ideas implemented as well.

Additionally, the runaway growth of presidential power means presidents usually get away with just ignoring Congress when it won’t give them whatever they demand.

Except for a few months around election dates, when gridlock re-emerges as a stalling tactic, divided government delivers the worst of both worlds.

There’s one good thing to be said for single-party government: The ruling party owns the outcomes of its policies.

George W. Bush and the Republicans owned the first six years of the “War on Terror.” They controlled the White House. They controlled the US House of Representatives. They controlled the US Senate.

Barack Obama and the Democrats owned the Affordable Care Act. It was passed by a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate and signed by a Democratic president.

Donald Trump and the Republicans owned everything between January 20, 2017 (when Trump was inaugurated) and January 3, 2019 (when a Democrat-controlled House opened session).

With divided government, both sides have plausible excuses for failing to make our lives better. The ruling party blames opposition obstructionism. The opposition party blames the ruling party’s unwillingness to compromise.

Both excuses are true,  but both excuses also spread a concealing fog over the truth that neither party offers real solutions, and the fact that neither party cares about anything but preserving and expanding its own power.

When one party controls government, it has no one else to blame when its policies fail. What you see is what you get, and what you get is one party having everything its way. That clarity may be the only consolation prize we get out of this election.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.