Checks and Balances vs Gridlock

John McCain’s latest argument to vote for him is based upon support for mixed government under the assumption that the Democrats are likely to control Congress regardless of who becomes president. This is a risky move for McCain considering that it means campaigning more as a partisan Republican after he has tried to portray himself as a maverick and independent. Such an argument diminishes McCain’s denials that he is basically offering a third George Bush term.

While the argument does contain risks, McCain does not have many cards left to play. Voting for mixed government is actually one of McCain’s strongest arguments left. Steve Benen argues that McCain is basically arguing for gridlock as opposed to what most Americans want:

First, “vote for gridlock” isn’t exactly a compelling pitch. As the argument goes, voters should support McCain, not because he’s right, but because he’ll fight with Congress. In other words, if you’re not tired of partisan spats and a dysfunctional Washington, McCain wants to deliver a few more years of it.

Second, McCain may find this hard to believe, but Obama’s policy agenda is actually pretty popular. By running as the pro-gridlock candidate, McCain is effectively telling voters, “If you vote for Obama, he’ll be in a position to do all of the things he’s promising to do.” Given that a majority of Americans support a middle-class tax cut, ending the war in Iraq, a comprehensive energy policy, and universal healthcare, the message may not resonate as much as McCain might hope.

What is gridlock to one person represents checks and balances on government power to another. In many situations I’d prefer gridlock to one party control of both branches–such as when Bush had a Republican Congress. While I have often supported gridlock as a means of achieving checks and balances, Steve is absolutely right that this would only make sense if McCain was right on the issues.

Mixed government only works out when the opposing party has something to offer. After Hillary Clinton introduced her awful health care proposal during Bill Clinton’s first term I was not all that upset to see the Republicans take control of Congress to provide further checks and balances. Unfortunately we soon learned that the Republicans were not fit to govern. While I wanted an alternative to the Clintons, the Republicans did not offer anything any better.

In order for there to be benefit to having the executive and legislative branches in different hands we would need to have policies from both parties which we want considered, or prefer a compromise position between the two. With the Republican Party having moved so far to the extreme right, McCain has nothing to offer policy-wise which would provide any advantage to Obama working with a Democratic Congress. Just making a generalized argument for split government is not enough. McCain needs to give actual policies where his views are preferable to Obama’s.

The argument might be more compelling to me if a more populist Democrat such as Clinton or Edwards had received the Democratic nomination. Obama is a different matter. He has shown far more ability than most politicians to consider both sides of the issues, and his exposure to free market principles at the University of Chicago should prove valuable in keeping Obama from moving too far to the left on economic matters, despite the ridiculous claims of socialism raised by the McCain campaign. Besides, there are many moderate Democrats in Congress who would side with a Republican minority against any moves to the far left. Fiscal realities will also limit what a Democratic dominated government can do.

The situation where the president often matters the most is on foreign policy, especially in making decisions regarding whether to go to war. While such decisions might be checked by an opposing party, this is a decision which the president primarily makes. Obama has shown far better judgment on this matter. He has also shown a better ability to respond to the recent financial crisis while McCain has acted erratically.

Perhaps the strongest argument against McCain’s call for split government is that there are three branches of government, not two. Further Republican appointees to the Supreme Court would push the court too far in one direction, making Democratic appointees preferable for those who prefer more balanced government as opposed to government which tilts too far in one direction. Further Republican appointees to the Supreme Court could move the country far to the right on many issues, contrary to claims that split government could direct the country on a more centrist course.

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