What Goes Up…Republicans should make hay now.

What Goes Up…Republicans should make hay now.–58gh.,b58

But if the Republican party were a publicly traded company, January 20 would be the day to sell, sell, sell. This may sound counterintuitive, but the verdict of history is clear, if not quite unanimous: The moment a party achieves total control of the government is the moment just before power begins to slip through its fingers.

Usually, the downturn begins quickly. First the marginal members of the congressional coalition begin to waver in their loyalty, then the midterm revivifies a seemingly moribund opposition. While the incumbent party usually wins its first reelection bid for the White House (Jimmy Carter being the only exception in the last 125 years), the other side retains a substantial footprint in the government. Their numbers are usually strengthened in the second midterm—at which point they often gain control over Congress.

Even so, it has been the dominant pattern in American politics for almost 200 years. Parties are much more successful at acquiring political power than they are at keeping it. The reason for this is simple: Ours is a very hard country to govern.

Parties face three challenges that eventually prove insuperable. First, America is an extremely diverse nation, yet we have but two major political parties. Party coalitions are quite heterogeneous, and it is difficult to keep so many far-flung factions within the coalition happy at all times. This is especially the case when the opposition is constantly endeavoring to poach marginal supporters. Because the difference between victory and defeat is rarely larger than 10 points, it does not take a lot of work to swing just enough voters.

Second, our system makes parties look like governing failures. The Constitution carefully distributes governing authority across multiple institutions—the presidency, two chambers of Congress, the courts, state governments. It is hard to induce these disparate entities to coordinate their efforts to deliver on the bold promises candidates make on the stump. This is a feature, not a bug, of our system, which typically requires a broad and durable consensus before big changes can be made. Candidates rarely endeavor to manage expectations when they’re electioneering—and that leaves the victors on the hook when the government does not deliver what they promised on the stump. And, of course, the opposition is always eager to tell voters that only they can make the government work.

Third, exogenous shocks to our polity are common. Wars, recessions, scandals, domestic crime waves, messy foreign entanglements—history is replete with instances when events such as these totally altered the political playing field. Sometimes, events strengthen a party’s governing hand, as was the case with JFK’s assassination and the 9/11 attacks. But more often than not, voters blame the party in charge for the new problem. The most frequent culprit is the business cycle. Ruling parties get the blame for recessions, which tend to recur every 5 to 10 years.

So Republicans would do well to make hay while the sun shines, for sooner or later it is going to set. Ironically, nobody furnishes a better example of how to make use of a fleeting majority than Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. Blessed with a supermajority during 2009-2010, they implemented many sweeping policy changes with impressive alacrity—as if they knew that the moment would soon pass. Indeed, it did. This one will, too. Republicans should make the most of it while it lasts.

source-weekly std, jay cost,


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