Mr. Sullivan, May I show you to your petard?

Mr. Sullivan, May I show you to your petard?


Andrew Sullivan lighting a petard, pre-hoist
In the event my title is a bit too obscure, pictured above is Mr. Andrew Sullivan lighting his petard, shortly before he is about to be hoisted by same.

This definition may help:

pe·tard n.
1. A small bell-shaped bomb used to breach a gate or wall.

Word History: The French used pétard,a loud discharge of intestinal gas,” for a kind of infernal engine for blasting through the gates of a city. “To be hoist by one’s own petard,” a now proverbial phrase apparently originating with Shakespeare’s Hamlet (around 1604) not long after the word entered English (around 1598), means “to blow oneself up with one’s own bomb, be undone by one’s own devices.” The French noun pet, “fart,” developed regularly from the Latin noun peditum, from the Indo-European root *pezd-, “fart.”
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

The question on the table Mr. Sullivan – is prompted by the well established and strongly held views about the virtues of divided government that you promoted during the 2006 midterms and prior to Barack Obama entering the presidential race – to whit:

[Continued after the fold and/or at Divided We Stand United We Fall]

Andrew Sullivan on Divided Government:

In the 1990s, national divided government gave us welfare reform and a balanced budget. Subsequently, one party government has given us massive debt, immense corruption, and a huge expansion in federal power. There’s a lesson here. And it’s: “Vote Democrat This November.” – Andrew Sullivan


“All this is more evidence to me, at least, that divided government is often the best. A Democrat forced to temper and enforce conservative policies can be as effective as a Republican forced to administer and moderate liberal policies. We might even get away with government doing much less. Alas, we have had a Republican lock-hold that has given us the worst of conservatism (executive branch abuse, arrogant war-bungling, Christianist social policy) with the the worst of liberalism (massive increases in government spending, regulation, entitlements and pork). Time for a check and balance, no?” – Andrew Sullivan


“Here’s one reason for conservatives not to be afraid sitting out this election or voting Democratic. Gridlock! The best government we’ve had in recent times was the Clinton-Gingrich face-off. They restrained the worst in each other, brought out the best, and gave us welfare reform, peace, and fiscal surpluses… The great strength of the American system is its capacity for divided government. If there was ever a time for it, it’s now. ” – Andrew Sullivan


“The Democrats, in a divided government, will also have to take responsibility for the hard choices involved in wartime. So divided government is win-win right now. Vote Democratic next Tuesday, or if you just can’t, abstain. For the country’s sake – and for the soul of conservatism. – Andrew Sullivan


“I can see, in other words, where I have given too short shrift in the book to the Jeffersonian idea of a nature’s God as the source of divided government and individual liberty….” – Andrew Sullivan


Things To Be Thankful For… Washington has divided government.” – Andrew Sullivan

And further, please consider that in 2008 we are looking at: A high probability of a Democratic President, a 100 seat Democratic majority in the House of Representatives under Nancy Pelosoi; A 60-40 filibuster proof super-majority in the Senate under Harry Reid or Hillary Clinton; And the largest concentration of single party federal power in the lifetime of most readers of this blog.

So, in consideration of all that, I was wondering if you thought it no longer important to your readers that the nation is careening at high speed down a highway to single party government hell in 2009?

Searching your site, the only post I can find in the post-Obama presidential candidate timeframe that addresses the issue you found so important in 2006, is this single post:


“Earlier, I quoted political scientist Larry Sabato as saying–correctly in my view–that the American people like gridlock. They don’t trust either party to run the whole show.And frankly, the 2000-2006 experience of a Republican Congress and a Republican president is strong evidence in favor of divided party control. Therefore, if Republicans were to run a national campaign reminding voters that the best economic times we’ve had in living memory came when we had a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, I think it could persuade a lot of voters to split their votes. If, on the other hand, Republicans insist of believing that they can hold the White House and put all their eggs in that basket, then we could have a nightmare scenario where Democrats in Congress are free to enact bad legislation with no restraint.” – Bruce Bartlett [substituting for Andrew Sullivan]

There is a stark contrast between Sullivan the vocal advocate for divided government before Obama entered the race and the Sullivan who apparently doesn’t think one party unified government is so bad, or certainly not important enough to write about after Obama entered the race.

Regarding Bartlett’s solution to the “nightmare scenario” of single party Democratic government in 2009 (I cannot respond to Sullivan’s solution since he has not offered one) – specifically his suggestion of focusing on Republicans retaking the House of Representatives – The problem is that it is flying in the face of history and ignoring the state of the Republican Party and House elections.

It is impossible for the GOP to retake the House or Senate in 2008. In the 100+ years since we have been electing senators directly, the House of Representatives has never switched majority unless the Senate did also. “Never” as in “not even once”. This is a law of politics like gravity is a force of nature. So what about the Senate? There are 33 Senate seats contested in 2008. Of these, 21 are held by Republicans and 12 by Democrats. Simple numbers – the Republicans have a lot more at risk, and will be playing defense. The Democrats have many more opportunities to take seats than Republicans. Advantage Democrats. Big, big advantage. The question is not whether the Democrats will increase their majority in the Senate, the question is whether they will achieve a 60-40 filibuster proof super-majority. Right now, it looks like they have a super-majority in sight.

The fact is Mr. Sullivan, the best and only chance for the continuation of the divided government you so admirably supported in 2006, is if the Republicans can hold the White House. When you argue for the inevitability of an Obama victory, you argue for a massive concentration of single party Democratic power and even fewer restraints on a unitary executive than were on President George W. Bush. That is unlike the soul of any conservative I have ever known.

Regardless of how much you personally like and respect Obama, I have to wonder if this is really what you want? Do you really want to see that much power invested in one man without checks, balances, and a vigorous opposition party?

Or will you ask your readers (as you did in 2006) to help avert the “nightmare scenario” Bartlett invokes, hold their collective nose and vote for McCain to secure divided government? And to ask them to do so – as you so eloquently put it – “For the country’s sake – and for the soul of conservatism.”

Mr. Sullivan, I believe the fuse on your petard is lit, sir.

[x-posted from Divided We Stand United We Fall]

  • Lee Stranahan

    I guess maybe you’re pretending not to understand how bad Bush has been and how much McCain is Bush 2.0. Divided government made sense when the GOP wasn’t as truly awful as they are right now.

    If this is your best argument for McCain, please head back to the castle and fire up the quill for another try.

  • Pdx632

    Funny how attitudes change when you like the candidate running. If divided government was good for us then, it certainly will be good for us in November. I anxiously await Sully’s reply.

  • gerryf

    Mindless adherence to a position, even one that has traditionally served you well, is dangerous.

    Situations dictate desired outcomes. Our situation is that 6 years of Republican abuse (and two subsequent years of a lame response from a Democrat house and split senate) has resulted in such a horrific mess that correcting it will require a concentration of power.

    Anything less will result in decades of malaise. The pendulum has swung too far. It needs to be corrected.

  • kranky kritter

    As a longtime reader of Sully, I don’t recall anything he ever said about divided government which suggested that he felt it was a primary or overriding virtue. His thesis has always, to me anyway, seemed restricted to pointing out that divided government can produce beneficial results.IOW, that there’s much to be said for it. I expect he still feels this is true.

    But I don’t recall him saying that the voting choice ought therefore to be restricted to the candidate of the minority party.

    So I don’t find that he has been hoist by his petard at all. Rather, I find that you are deliberately mischaracterizing his views. That’s contemptible.

  • anon

    Rather, I find that you are deliberately mischaracterizing his views. That’s contemptible.

    Either that, or fishing for some traffic (i.e., hoping Sullivan might come across this post and feel compelled to link/respond).

    Regardless, the virtues of divided government depend entirely on the individuals in each branch, and the executive is particularly important. To any sane person, one-party government (and no, the Democrats won’t have anywhere near a 60 vote majority) is temporarily preferable to four more years of Bush policies.

  • mw

    One man’s contempt is another man’s analysis.

    The case for divided government does not depend on the individuals in each branch, the case for divided government is based on documented historical fact determined by political scientists, historians and economists.

    Its not my best argument for divided government. Just getting warmed up. However it may be my best argument for McCain. Actually it is my only one, so I’ll have to stick with it.

    Interesting to note that of the four negative comments (so far), three are willing to risk overriding constitutional checks & balances and embrace massive concentration of power out of fear and loathing of George Bush. This is a similar dynamic to Republicans grabbing for extra-legal power and running on fear of terrorism. For those voters I’d Just like to make one point of clarification the “McCain = Bush” meme is campaign rhetoric and sloganeering. It is not literally true. George Bush will stop being President in six months regardless of who is elected. Hope that makes you feel better. It does for me.

  • Jim S

    McCain agrees with about 75-80% of Bush’s policies. There is no indication that he would undertake any actions to repair what Bush has done to this country. Sorry, mw, I don’t buy your take on McCain being all that different from Bush. In all but a small number of issues he is working as hard as he can (Or he certainly did during the primaries.) to be perceived by the Republican base as a continuation of current policies that they like.

    Historical “fact” is not the be-all and end-all of factors to consider. Things change. If we cannot change to meet new facts and new situations then we are doomed to failure. Divided government can only be worshiped by those who desire that government accomplish nothing, mostly what passes for conservatives and libertarians nowadays.

    Look at one of the reasons you cite for voting divided.

    Divided government results in better and longer lasting legislation. Major reforms and structural changes (Reagan tax reform, Clinton welfare reform) that have a passed under a divided government are more likely to survive being undone by subsequent congressional action than major reforms passed by a unified single party government.

    Notice that the most recent example you can find is 12 years old. Divided government under the current circumstances, where the division is not a true division because of the numbers in the Senate and the tactics of the Republicans mean that in truth nothing meaningful or useful gets done. The same criticism applies to your comment about oversight. History is not law when the circumstances do not match the previous situation.

  • Tully

    I am in awe of that graphic…and I am stealing it. :^D

  • mw

    “History is not law when the circumstances do not match the previous situation.” – JS

    True. This is similar to the investment caveat “Past performance does not guarantee future results.” But it is a pretty darn good indicator in both investments and politics, and a much much better indicator than anything a politician says during a campaign. BTW – the statement that the current “circumstances do not match the previous situation” is simply a statement of unsubstantiated opinion. I think the curicumstances are close enough and we will indeed get identical results to the historical precedents.

    McCain agrees with about 75-80% of Bush’s policies. – JS

    True. And Obama agrees with about 50% of Bush’s policies. So there is maybe a 25% difference between them on the “Be Like Bush” scale. Also there is no evidence that Obama will offer any meaningful opposition to the worst impulses of his own party.

    “Obama voted with his party more than 95 percent of the time during that period, while McCain was more independent, tallying party unity scores between 70 and 90 percent….
    In 2007, Obama found himself in Bush’s camp on immigration policy; in a series of votes, Obama backed legislation, which failed, that would have provided a temporary guest worker program and new border security measures. Obama and Bush also were allied on legislation that raised the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour over two years and provided $8.3-billion in small-business tax incentives. In 2006, as Obama was laying the foundation for his presidential bid, he supported the president’s position on key votes dealing with immigration policy and on making permanent 14 provisions in the “Patriot Act” antiterrorism law.

    And now we can add NAFTA and FISA to the areas of agreement between Obama and Bush.

    Finally, if you want an earlier example of major long-lasting reforms coming out of divided government, the Reagan tax reforms of 1981 and 1986 were with a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats. I just used the more recent Clinton example for the young’uns on this blog. And the statistic on divided government restraining the growth of spending compared to single party government holds up perfectly without exception going back 50 years.

  • mw

    Tully – be my guest. A link to DWSUWF would be appreciated.

  • kranky kritter

    One man’s contempt is another man’s analysis.

    Yeah, I have no clue what that’s supposed to mean. You’ve failed provide any counter to the npoint that you have mischaracterized Sully’s position for the sake of furthering your own thesis. I’ll assume that means you already knew, and don’t care.

  • mw

    To the aptly name kranky –
    Absolutely no rejoinder is needed, if all I am doing is letting Sully’s words and lack thereof speak for themselves. Which is exactly what I have done in this post. Exactly.

    And BTW – Sully has no problem acknowledging this line of argument. As you may or may not know, Sully does not permit comments on his blog except for e-mail submissions that he selects to post, and he heavily moderates which blog trackbacks are permitted to be be displayed. You might take a look at this Sully post, and note which trackback has been approved.

    I am also a long time reader of Sully. I expect him to surprise and endorse a vote for divided government again before Nov 4. That, or surrender once and for all any claim to being a conservative.

  • Tully

    MW, if I leave Sully’s head on it I will link. Is that the Grose print, perchance? Been a while since I saw it and I remember it larger.

    I’m pretty much in concurrence with the post itself. We shall see if Sullivan is as devoted to divided government as he has previously claimed, or it was just a conventient bit of rhetoric.

  • mw

    It is. I pulled it from here, and am only using the lower half.

  • Libertyman13

    It’s a good thing the judicial branch is so strongly controlled by right-wing authoritarian judges, then. “No liberty for anyone! The government can do whatever it wants, except try to help people!”

    Simplistic, I know. But you have to be pretty simple to buy into conservative judicial philosophy. Either that, or a jerk like Rehnquist was and Scalia is.

  • Mark

    Although divided government is typically preferable, I think you can make a strong case that in the post-unitary executive era, Congress is pretty close to irrelevant. This is caused not just by the Bushies’ push for untrammelled power, but equally because Congress, both when under Dem and Republican control, has completely and utterly failed to even attempt to put a stop to it, whether through impeachment or, more realistically, through simply refusing to give in to Presidential demands for more power. So to me the question isn’t so much how to create gridlock but rather how to get Congress, especially the majority party (which will obviously be the Dems) to reassert itself and restore some semblance of a check on the executive branch.
    If you view that as impossible, as I suspect many do, then a vote for Obama is more than justifiable on the grounds that he is less likely to abuse the massive powers that he will inherit; heck, if you believe he is sincere in his occasional comments about executive power, then you might even think that he will choose to restore some of Congress’ power whether Congress wants it or not.
    On the other hand, if you think that the Congressional Dems will grow a backbone if they are appropriately punished for their abdications, then the only real way to appropriately punish them is to vote for McCain (or more appropriately Barr or Nader), and hope they get the message. Unfortunately, there’s really no good way to punish them in the Congressional elections since they’re virtually guaranteed to pick up seats in both houses no matter what happens between now and November.

  • mw

    “If you view that as impossible, as I suspect many do, then a vote for Obama is more than justifiable on the grounds that he is less likely to abuse the massive powers that he will inherit; heck, if you believe he is sincere in his occasional comments… – Mark

    Well, he is clearly not sincere since he flat reneged on an unequivocal statement to help Dodd and Feingold filibuster anything with Telecom immunity.

    You are looking for a reason to support Obama? Here – let me help you:

    Vote for Barack Obama because he is more likely to appoint Supreme Court judges that will declare unconstitutional the stuff THAT HE VOTES FOR.

    Happy to help.