(Jacksonville, Florida) – I was on the road again this week, and I was thinking about how Florida has swung back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. I also thought more about the House, Senate, and White House being held by the same party. That doesn’t happen often, and it can backfire for the party in power. There is a lot to “brunch” on this week:
“The Great Society” – The 1960s became a dominant era for Democratic politics in the U.S. Republicans had controlled the House and Senate through 1954, but then lost both. When President John Kennedy was elected in 1960 and was succeeded by President Lyndon Johnson, the Democrats had a stranglehold on power in Washington. They passed significant legislation, such as the Civil Right Act and Voting Rights Act, but also increased the nation’s entanglement in the Vietnam War. Still, it was a long era of political dominance in this country; and a lot got done, controversial as some of it was.
“Carter 1976” – In 1976, after eight years of Republicans in the White House - and the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal - Democrats increased their majority in the House and Senate and elected a President in Jimmy Carter (D-GA). It all went downhill from there. Carter never embraced “insider” Washington, and offended such power-brokers as House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) and Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA). Intraparty fights ruled the day, and the all-Democratic government produced few – if any – accomplishments. It was so bad that Carter lost in a landslide in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, and the GOP also swept control of the Senate.
“Clinton 1992” – In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton defeated the incumbent George H.W. Bush and also brought solid majorities to the House and Senate. His signature initiative was health care reform, to be championed by First Lady Hillary Clinton. But many longtime Democrats in the House and Senate who had jurisdiction over health legislation felt their toes were being stepped on. Congress is a series of kingdoms and fiefdoms where committee chairs and sub-committee chairs wield power and loyalty that the Clintons never perceived. Not only was health care reform abandoned (It never even got a vote), but Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.
“Bush 2000” – After the divisive 2000 Presidential election, the U.S. Senate was split 50-50, but Republicans essentially held control, with Vice President Dick Cheney as the tie-breaking vote. The GOP was able to pass – with significant Democratic support – the “No Child Left Behind Act,” education reform legislation. However, in late May, Senator Jim Jeffords (R-VT) left his party to become an independent - after the large Republican tax cut bill – and Democrats took control of the Senate. Normally that might cause legislative gridlock, as the GOP held the House; but the September 11th attacks gave an impetus to national unity. Many Democrats wound up supporting a controversial war in Iraq, for example.
“Obama 2008” – When Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) won the White House in 2008, his party had already taken control of the House and Senate two years prior. Although it took just over a year, Democrats finally had enough votes in both chambers to pass the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare. It was a triumphant and historic legislative act nearly forty years in the making. It shows what a unified party in complete control of the agenda can do in Washington. Unfortunately for Democrats, the law was – and still is – highly controversial. It prompted the GOP takeover of the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and the White House in 2016. The ACA is now poised for repeal.
“Trump 2016” – In many ways the Affordable Care Act created the “perfect storm” for the 2016 election. Republicans now control the White House, the Senate, and the House, with enough votes to undo what the Democrats (without a single GOP vote) had created in 2010. That issue aside, there could be others that sharply divide the Republicans as we go forward. As we’ve seen, unified government can be more of a curse than a blessing.
“Fair Weather Florida” – While I was in Florida this past week, I was struck by how influential the Sunshine State has been in creating the above-mentioned scenarios. In 1980, the strong win by President Ronald Reagan helped bring a relative political unknown named Paula Hawkins (R-FL) into a new U.S. Senate majority for Republicans. In 2001, a close Presidential race in Florida, made the Republican U.S. Senate seat a wild card. Democrat Bill Nelson (D-FL) won, leaving the U.S. Senate in a tie. In 2016, a sudden return to the Senate race by failed White House candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) helped save his party’s Senate majority. Florida remains a big deal for control of the White House and Congress.
“Why All of This Matters” – Many people expect the Republicans to just steamroll legislation through Congress and onto President Trump’s desk for his signature, simply because the GOP holds all three seats at the table. But, as we saw with President Carter in 1976 and President Clinton in 1992, intraparty fights can sink all of that. In fact, Bill Clinton was far more successful in the first three years after Republicans seized control of the House and Senate in 1994. Divided government got a lot of laws passed, until impeachment derailed further bipartisan cooperation.
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