McCain’s Last Mistake

Undivided government won’t be as bad as he warned it would be.

John McCain’s last, desperate argument to the voters was the danger of undivided government. Give the Democrats the White House, both houses of Congress, maybe even a flibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and they will be unstoppable. And then God knows what they’ll do.

As I write, it’s still too early on Election Night to know whether the Democrats will actually achieve their flibuster-proof Senate majority. If they don’t, there will be wise observers all over TV and in Wednesday’s newspapers asserting that the voters have chosen divided government or decided to warn the Democrats not to go too far, or some such nonsense.

In fact, almost no one actually chooses divided government. Almost everyone who votes for Obama also votes Democratic for the Senate and the House. Ditto McCain and the Republicans. Divided government results when those totals are close, and just a few ticket-splitters can produce a divided result. McCain was not asking voters to split their tickets. He was urging Republicans tempted to vote for Obama not to split their tickets, for fear that undivided government would be the result.

But what is the appeal of divided government? Why would people hope for it or vote for it? Why would Republican strategists choose this argument as their Hail Mary pass? The reason is fear of change. There is no subject on which the American voter is more hypocritical than on the alleged desire for change. It sounds wonderfully civic in the abstract: You are fed up with “business as usual,” and you demand that things be done differently. Many Americans say they feel this way and probably even believe they feel this way. But in the particular, they actually don’t mind things the way they are. In fact, much of what gets billed as “change” in our politics is actually stasis.

The best example is health care reform. Hillary Clinton’s reform attempt of the early 1990s stumbled over the issue of whether her reforms would allow you to keep your current doctor. God forbid you should have to change doctors as the price of bringing health care to everyone and preventing it from swallowing up the economy. The only reform that came out of Hillary’s effort was a law attempting (with limited success) to guarantee that people who already had health insurance would not lose it if they changed jobs. Health care was an issue once again in the 2008 campaign, and the first thing out of Obama’s mouth when he described his ideas on the subject was usually a solemn promise that you could keep your own doctor.

Maybe it is possible to reform the health care system without forcing people to change doctors. But it is not possible to reform health care, pensions, and everything else Obama has promised to tackle—and solve the financial crisis, guide us through a recession, and wipe out the federal deficit—without multiple changes that citizens will find more wrenching than this one.

If you really long for change, divided government is the last thing you should want. In a parliamentary system, like the one in Britain, divided government is impossible. You vote for the party, not the person. Whichever party wins the most seats or can cobble together a majority through alliances with other parties gets to form a government and choose a prime minister. The winning party is generally able to enact its agenda. More important, that party can be held accountable if it does not enact its agenda or if it does and the policies fail.

In our country, there is always an excuse. The president wanted to do something-or-other, but Congress stopped him. Even an incumbent president can run for re-election on good intentions. This habit of thought is so built in to our system that it even works when the president’s party actually does control Congress, as it did in the early years of George W. Bush’s tenure. But paralysis is guaranteed if the White House and Congress can quibble and blame each other. Quibbling and finger-pointing are two of the bad habits voters are said to despise. And yet many of these same voters long for an arrangement that will guarantee more of both.

People who want divided government are afraid of politics. They imagine that under divided government, the wise elders of both parties would sit around a table and “rise above politics” with pragmatic solutions for everything. But it doesn’t work that way, and it shouldn’t. Our disagreements are generally about trade-offs—money for some new government benefit, the blood of our young for some foreign-policy goal, freedom for protection from terrorists, bureaucracy for the safety of drugs or cars or financial derivatives. All of these trade-offs could be settled by letting some board of elders split the difference. But then it wouldn’t be much of a democracy, would it?

Unfortunately, politicians in a system without accountability get elected by promising to ignore all these inevitable trade-offs. “Yes, we can” will come back to haunt Barack Obama, because often we can’t. Inspiration is no match for mathematics. So the Democrats who now control the agenda face a moral dilemma: Should they do what is right or do what they promised?