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The Dysfunctional Decade

With the 2016 presidential race underway, one quality we should look for is who can govern effectively.

December 18, 2014

Those glorious 10 days will forever shimmer in memory. We will always treasure those idyllic moments that separated the final gasp of the 2014 congressional campaign (the December 6 Louisiana runoff election) and the start of the 2016 presidential race (the December 16 announcement by Jeb Bush of his almost-candidacy).   

The only safe bet about 2016 is that it is certain to be a record year for media excess. The breakdown of traditional news organizations coupled with hyperactive pursuit of online clicks means that no rumor, no premature poll, no celebrity endorsement, no candidate tweet and no campaign musical selection will ever be ignored. More media attention will be lavished on Iowa and New Hampshire than on Ukraine, Iran and North Korea. Combined.

I will be part of the scrum as I have for the prior nine presidential campaigns. And, yes, I too am certain at times to give way to frenzied excess and mistakenly conclude that a lacerating debate moment or a scathing campaign commercial is the most important event in American political history since Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech. But I hope that—despite all the temptations to become fixated on the ephemeral—I keep my eyes on the biggest challenge facing American democracy.

And that is: Can the next president govern?

For years, I assumed that winning the White House automatically gave the victor the ability to govern—and how he handled the first few years in office determined whether he would keep that mandate. So in covering campaigns over the decades, I scrutinized a presidential candidate’s ideology, life experience, intelligence and that elusive quality called character.

But the sad-eyed history of the 21st century presidency is a reminder that nothing can be assumed. George W. Bush squandered the national unity forged by 9/11 in the sands of Iraq. Since 2003, neither Bush nor Barack Obama has had a shred of bipartisan support do anything—with the possible exception of a few attempts at immigration reform.

The result has been the Dysfunction Decade when even basic elements of governing like paying the national debt have turned into hair-raising dramas of Cold War-style brinksmanship. To merely pass legislation funding the government for 2015 required a major payoff to the banking industry and the final evisceration of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform legislation.

Other periods of paralysis in Washington have ended with a dramatic governing victory by one party or another. But American politics has been on a knife’s edge since the 2000 electoral tie between Bush and Al Gore. Over the last 14 years neither party has achieved more than a momentary advantage. Every presidential election in the 21st century has been relatively close by historical standards. Despite the recent GOP off-year landslides, the Democrats seemed poised for a lasting congressional edge as recently as six years ago.

Over the past century, roughly half of the presidential elections have been routs. In the 25 presidential elections going back to 1916, 13 of them were so lopsided that the winner received more than 400 electoral votes out of 538 (or 535 earlier). In 12 presidential contests, the winning candidate beat his nearest rival by 10 percentage points or more.

And then it all changed.

The last time a presidential contender received more than 400 electoral votes was in 1988. And not since Ronald Reagan in 1984 has a candidate hit 55 percent of the vote. In fact, in the last six elections, no candidate has gotten more than Obama’s 53 percent of the vote in 2008—and that number was exaggerated by the mid-September Wall Street collapse. Presidential landslides have become as outmoded as answering machines for land-line telephones.

It is a daunting challenge for any president to govern in a 51–49 nation. With so much at stake in such an evenly divided country, political consultants dominate the thinking in both parties. Ideological purity and party unity are prized—and negotiations with the other party are often seen as tantamount to treason. As a result, neither party is prompted to rethink its ideology as the Democrats were after three humiliating White House losses in the 1980s. (In that decade, the Republicans carried 39 states in every single election).

Predicting the presidential nominees this far in advance—let alone the final 2016 outcome—is a game that should be limited to fools, naïfs and those who opine on cable TV. But what we do know is that the presidential map has been unusually stable recently (only two states shifted parties from 2008 to 2012). So, at the moment, it is reasonable to assume that the 2016 result will be close. And that puts a premium on a new president who can navigate treacherous waters—without the help of gusts from an electoral blowout.

How do you find such a candidate?

It requires more than taking them at their word: Bush in 2000 was sincere when he promised to be a “uniter not a divider” and Obama in 2008 had convinced himself that he could single-handedly transform the culture of Washington. Even Richard Nixon (yes, Richard Nixon) seized upon an Ohio teenager’s sign that he saw in the waning days of the 1968 campaign that read, “BRING US TOGETHER.”

Maybe the first step should be to look skeptically at presidential contenders who magically promise to impose their will on Washington—regardless of Congress, a balky federal bureaucracy or a politically divided nation. Dogmatic certainty may play well on the campaign trail, but it remains a formula for disaster in the White House.

Experience matters in the governing game.

Among the most useful credentials that Hillary Clinton might bring to the Oval Office is her encyclopedic knowledge of dysfunctional White Houses: both Bill Clinton’s (to which she contributed) and Barack Obama’s (that she witnessed from the State Department). Current Republican governors like Ohio’s John Kasich and Indiana’s Mike Pence have the advantage of having also served in the House of Representatives during periods when there was still a flicker of bipartisanship. And Jeb Bush—beyond being a two-term governor of a politically divided state—hopefully picked up lessons in governing from the successes of his father and the failures of his brother.

Of course, there is no formula for governing that automatically rates the résumés  of would-be presidents. Personality and persuasiveness may ultimately prove more important than authoring compromise legislation in Congress or working with the other party as governor.

In a sense, recognizing a capacity for governing is akin to Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” But in order to glimpse that indispensable attribute along the road to the White House, you need to be looking for it. Sadly, too often campaign coverage obsesses about irrelevancies—and ignores what it takes to be a successful president in this troubled century. 

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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