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If Voters Choose Divided Power, What Then?

The elections are still more than a month away, but all signs indicate that an angry electorate is going to follow the dictum of legendary screen siren Mae West: “When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I have not tried before.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Actually, Americans have tried practically every permutation of government in recent years — all-Republican rule (2001-2007), all-Democratic rule (1993-95 and 2009-present) and divided government with different parties in charge of the White House and Congress.

But the arrangement we haven’t tried lately — and which sort of worked when we did — had a Democrat in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress, from 1995 to 2001.

Of course, Republicans impeached Bill Clinton and they shut down the government. But he and the GOP also forged an agreement on welfare reform and balanced the budget.

In August, the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that, by 55 percent to 39 percent, voters said, “It is more important to have Republicans in charge of Congress to act as a check on President Barack Obama’s policies” rather than Democrats in charge supporting them.

It’s far from a done deal, for sure, but every traditional measure of voter attitudes suggests this will be a “wave” election big enough to hand control of the House, and maybe even the Senate, to Republicans.

And even if the GOP falls short — picking up, say eight Senate seats instead of 10 — Republicans will be ideologically in control of the body.

There are obviously two ways to anticipate an election’s outcome — weigh national polling factors and look race by race.

Among the national factors, Obama’s approval rating — 45 percent in the Gallup poll — puts him in the range of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 (44 percent), whose Democrats lost 47 House seats, and Clinton in 1994 (46 percent), whose party lost 53 seats and control of the House.

Then there’s Congress’ approval rating — 18 percent, according to Gallup, almost the lowest ever and lower than in any midterm election year, including 1994 (23 percent) and 2006 (26 percent), when Republicans lost 30 seats and control of the House.

Gallup’s measure of public satisfaction with the direction of the country — 19 percent — is the lowest in the 18 years the question’s been asked.

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC “right track, wrong track” numbers are better — 32 percent positive and 20 points higher than in 2008, but on par with the wave in 2006.

As the Pew poll reported two weeks ago, independent voters are turning against Democrats — 49 percent to
36 percent — almost as strongly as they were against Republicans in 2006 and more than in 2008.

And on the national generic ballot question, Pew is showing a Republican lead among likely voters of 50 percent to 43 percent — huge. The NBC poll has Republicans up by 3, a fall-off from 9 in late August.

Every measure of voter enthusiasm — primary turnout, intention to vote, etc. — also leans strongly Republican, with tea party activists leading the charge.

Among leading race-by-race analysts, is putting Republicans ahead in 207 House races, Democrats in 191 and listing 37 as tossups — of which the GOP needs to take only 11 to take control.

CQ Politics has it the opposite — 213 Democrats leading, 189 Republicans, 33 tossups. Stuart Rothenberg lists 28 Democratic seats tilting or leaning Republican — 11 short of control — and 13 as tossups.

In the Senate, Republicans do have to virtually run the table to pick up 10 seats, but it’s doable.

GOP candidates have substantial leads in five states — North Dakota, Arkansas, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin —and are within range of winning in Illinois, Nevada, Colorado, West Virginia, California and, amazingly, Connecticut.

Republicans had Delaware for the asking as well, but they appear to have thrown it away by nominating tea party favorite Christine O’Donnell, who’s trailing badly.

The rules of the Senate are such that cohesive minorities are powerful if they have 41 votes. With 48 or 49 — and able to attract a conservative Democrat or two — Republicans can run (or stop) the show.

So, it looks as though Mae West and proponents of divided government may well get their wish in November.

The question is: What then? Are President Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans going to do as Clinton and Republicans did in the 1990s — fight like hell, but get stuff done — or just battle to a standstill and make who’s to blame the central issue of the 2012 elections?

There’s every danger that Obama is incapable of reaching out to Republicans and that Republicans under the influence of tea partiers and Sen. Jim DeMint
(R-S.C.) will refuse to reach back if he does.

If the result is that none of America’s problems get addressed — jobs, the debt, energy, education, immigration — what organization of government is there left to try? You can be sure, outraged voters will want something new.

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