The gridlock option
Thursday, July 15, 2010; 10:35 AM
The essential zinger that President Obama is using against the Republicans is that they ran the car into the ditch and voters shouldn't give them the keys back.
Democrats, who are acutely aware of the president's sinking poll numbers, flush out the argument this way:
Sure, the country blames us for the rotten economy and thinks we spent too much time on health care, but what's the GOP alternative? They're the party of no, they don't offer a positive agenda, and they did crash the economy at the end of Bush's term -- after years of overspending. Polls show the public is as fed up with the Republicans as they are with us. Obama is trying to do the right thing -- the stimulus did create plenty of jobs -- and the Republicans shouldn't be rewarded for being obstructionists.
But what if Americans like obstructionists?
By which I mean, what if the country, having sampled all-Democratic rule in Washington, would much prefer divided government?
It has, of course, happened before. Voters saddled Ronald Reagan with a Democratic Senate in his last two years in office. Bill Clinton seemed to overreach in his first two years and the voters rewarded him with a Republican Congress for the last six. George W. Bush was six years into his term when the voters gave Democrats control of both chambers.
That's why the Obama rhetoric about giving back the keys may fall flat: A Republican Congress wouldn't be running things. It would be more in the role of backseat driver. GOP lawmakers could schedule hearings, issue subpoenas, keep bills off the floor -- but would have a hard time passing anything over a presidential veto.
That could be a formula for gridlock -- but if enough voters are angry at big government, they might prefer a government that doesn't do much.
Or it could force both parties to compromise, as when Clinton and the Gingrich Congress agreed on welfare reform and a balanced budget. (Then came 1998, when that Congress did little more than impeach the president for lying about his fling with the intern.)
Most voters might not vote strategically -- they might just choose between an incumbent and a challenger, say -- but they may at least be aware that they could make Obama and the Republicans share power.
Why can't Obama seem to get any traction? We'll lead off with Slate's John Dickerson:
"When politicians are confronted with bad poll numbers, they often say that these surveys are just a 'snapshot in time.' That can be true. Fortunes can change. Doom is not locked in. But what's so bad about these surveys is that they paint a very dark picture about the president's ability to brighten the future. If Obama can't improve things for Democrats, no one can. And as bad as the president's numbers are, the Democrats in Congress are in even worse shape.