If the pollsters and pundits are right, the Republicans will regain control of the House of Representatives in next week's midterm elections. This will be a new situation for President Barack Obama and the Democrats, who have had overwhelming control of both houses of Congress. Mr. Obama and the Republicans will have to learn how to negotiate and compromise with each other. The situation brings to mind Bill Clinton, whose Democrats lost control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections and never regained it during his two terms in office.
Mr. Clinton's first two years, when he had the support of Congress, are widely regarded as a failure, whereas his last six years were relatively productive. The key to his success was his adviser Dick Morris's strategy of "triangulation," which amounted to co-opting Republican initiatives. Mr. Clinton will be remembered for balancing the budget and reforming welfare, two signature Republican policies.
Mr. Obama mistakenly believed that his personal victory in 2008 authorized him to enact the ultra-liberal program identified with the left wing of his own party. Now Mr. Obama, like Mr. Clinton, will have to triangulate to succeed. Of course, the Republicans will also have to be willing to compromise. If they repeat the Republican mistakes of the 1990s - blockading the budget, shutting down the government, and trying to impeach the president - they will discredit themselves and strengthen Mr. Obama's chances of re-election.
The spirit of the U.S. Constitution, as explained by James Madison in The Federalist, is the balance of countervailing powers. "Ambition," he wrote, "must be made to counteract ambition." The system works better, and stays closer to the views of the median voter, when neither Republicans nor Democrats receive licence to enact the views of their more fervid supporters.
With leadership and goodwill, negotiation and compromise can accomplish can great things. Facing a Congress controlled by Democrats did not prevent Ronald Reagan from leading a Republican revolution. Facing a Congress controlled by Republicans did not prevent Mr. Clinton from presiding over several years of peace, prosperity and balanced budgets.
There are lessons in this for Canada. The spirit of the parliamentary system at most times is to constrain power through the sequential alternation of majority governments. We are now, however, in an extended period of minority government. Although the parallel is not exact, there is considerable similarity between the situation of a Canadian minority government and an American president facing a Congress controlled by his opponents. In both cases, one party controls the executive but can't pass a legislative program without obtaining some support from opponents.
On both sides of the 49th parallel, the players also face similar choices of political gamesmanship. They can take the constructive route of co-operation and compromise to pass necessary legislation, or they can take the obstructive route of blocking initiatives and throwing the blame on the other side, sacrificing governance for the sake of positioning in the next election.
Since minority government arrived in Canada in 2004, we have seen some interludes of constructive compromise but far more obstructive politicking with the next election in mind - in effect, a state of permanent campaign. That made sense against the backdrop of Canadian history, in which periods of minority government have usually been short-lived. But three elections in a row have produced a minority government, and there is nothing in public opinion polls to predict a different result in the next election, whenever that may come.
If we do get another minority result, our leaders will have to choose. Let's hope Mr. Obama and the Republicans will give us a constructive American example of power-sharing.
Tom Flanagan is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.
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