The tables will turn today in the United States. For more than half of the past 50 years the Congress has not been controlled by the party which has the presidency, but in nearly all of that time it has been Republican Presidents facing a Democrat-controlled Congress. Today Democrat Bill Clinton faces a Republican-controlled Congress. He faces a more difficult task on two counts. First, past Republican Presidents have been able to secure quite frequently support from a block of conservative Democrats from the South. There is no equivalent group of chamelon Republicans, though occasionally one or two liberal Republicans break ranks.
Secondly, Democrat Presidents like to initiate programs that require legislative backing whereas their Republican counterparts have, of their nature, been suspcicious of high governmental intervention in domestic policy. A Democrat President like Mr Clinton, therefore, will need more congressional co-operation than a Republican like his predecessor to achieve electoral credibility. Mr Clinton staked much on moving towards a universal health scheme. He had difficulty with a Democrat Congress on that; with a Republican Congress it will be hopeless. But it will not be all bad for Mr Clinton. For a start he will have someone else to blame and someone else to call a spoiler. Before, his own party was the spoiler and he had only himself to blame for under-achievement.
Further, it is almost inevitable that the Republicans will make mistakes or that some of the laws they get through Congress without being vetoed by the President will caused hardship and unpopularity _ probably in the very middle-America ground that decides presidential elections. Translating rhetoric into results is a difficult, popularity-sapping business The Republicans have vowed, for example, to cut back on welfare to the undeserving poor and balance the Budget. However, welfare in the US is not highly targetted as it is in Australia. To have a substantial impact on the deficit the Republicans would have to cut welfare to the undeserving rich, thereby losing popularity. Alternatively they could raise taxes or cut back defence, but they are ideologically opposed to these moves and they would be seen as hypocrites and promise-breakers.
The Republicans imagine that, armed with their “”Contract with America”, they can move into Congress today, sweep away waste and extravagance in Washington, punish the Democrat-voting welfare bludgers and eject Mr Clinton from the White House. Politics is not that easy. Equally likely is a grubby tussle of presidential veto and congresional obstruction compounded by conflict between the Houses generated by the conflicting presidential ambitions of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Indeed, given the hash Mr Clinton made of his time with a Democrat majority in Congress, it is hard to see how things can be any worse for him with a Republican majority _ rather they improve his chances in 1996.
In the meantime, of course, it can be argued that the world can be profoundly affected by political instability in the US. Given Mr Clinton’s foreign-affairs dithering while he had Congress on side, it is unlikley that matters can get worse. And on the free-trade front, most of the important medium-term goals have been achieved: NAFTA, APEC and GATT. Mr Clinton was severely weakened by last November’s mid-term elections, but the result may be a blessing in disguise. Until the Republicans had some ball, they could not be seen to fumble with it.