- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Americans like their coffee hot, their beer cold and their government divided. Or so it seems. As for policy-makers in Washington, some clearly like the new arrangement better than the old, while everyone has some adjusting to do in this new mixed-government melody. But it’s a song we’ve heard before.

When the 110th Congress convenes in January, the legislative and executive branches of government will return to a familiar framework — mixed government. It’s a popular arrangement with voters, who have imposed it through electoral intervention more often than not in the last 50 years. In fact, until George W. Bush, every Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower has dealt with a Democratic House for his entire term. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson are the only two presidents over the past half-century who never confronted divided government.

Yet, despite its apparent popularity with voters, mixed government causes a variety of challenges and headaches for the White House and both parties in Congress. It muddies the political waters in numerous ways, creating conflicting motivations that often strain the bonds of trust between the branches while presenting a host of communications difficulties for both parties.

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A Republican White House walks a fine line in divided government. In the lawmaking process, much of the negotiating occurs with the Democrats. Republican members of Congress consequently often feel left out and unappreciated. The White House must carefully coordinate the information flow between the president’s staff and both the majority party Democrats and its natural political allies on the Republican side of the aisle — a complicated dance that often bruises egos.

When I worked in the legislative affairs office of President George H.W. Bush between 1989 and 1992, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate. Negotiating with the majority without alienating Republicans was a constant challenge. Often Republicans were unhappy not only with the content of the compromises the Bush administration struck with Democrats in Congress, but also in the way these deals were communicated. Most Republicans found out about the infamous 1990 budget agreement — where President George H. W. Bush agreed to raise taxes — when the White House issued a press release noting it would put everything on the table to secure a deal, “including tax revenue increases.” Many Republicans never regained trust in a White House they believed undercut them both in substance and in the communications style.

The majority in Congress faces similar challenges. Does negotiating with a Republican president anger the Democrat base? Does fighting the president, passing legislation that is subsequently vetoed, hurt with swing voters who are looking for accomplishments? These questions are part of the political calculus Democrats face next year.

Negotiating bipartisan agreements with Republicans and Mr. Bush might help with some voting blocs but anger others. Recall that when President Clinton signed welfare reform after negotiating with Republicans on Capitol Hill, many liberals were furious and bitterly rebuked the White House. Democrats in Congress will no doubt face similar charges of political treason from their base every time they compromise with Mr. Bush. But doing so may also prove positive among swing voters. Which constituency matters more?

Finally, the minority party faces its own issues in the mixed-government world. Do they “get along and go along” with the major legislative compromises between the White House and congressional Democrats? By doing so do they help the president and themselves, or do they guarantee the success and popularity of the Democrat majority in Congress? Pre-1994 Republicans were often criticized for being satisfied with the “crumbs” from the Democrats’ table, while post-1994 Republican “revolutionaries” were sometimes disparaged for exercising too much partisanship and ushering in a new era of polarization.

Each of the participants in America’s new governmental arrangement — Mr. Bush, the Democratic majority in Congress and the Republican minority — faces a new and unique set of opportunities and challenges next year. The first step in successfully negotiating this terrain requires accepting new roles and acknowledging that different pitfalls and prospects now exist.

Democrats in Congress and Mr. Clinton wasted significant time and energy in angry denial when Republicans claimed the majority after the 1994 election. Republicans should not fall into the same trap. Learning the new mixed-government dance will require some careful listening by all parties, but it should not be that difficult. After all, it’s a familiar tune.

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