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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Robert J. Samuelson: Election calls for ticket-splitting

By Robert J. Samuelson Washington Post

There was a time when ticket splitting was common. Voters would support one party’s candidate for president and the other’s for Congress. At its peak in 1972, ticket splitters represented 30 percent of voters, reports political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University. Since then, the practice has gone into eclipse. In 2012, only 11 percent of the electorate were ticket splitters.

And yet. …

To bring this nasty and bizarre campaign to a meaningful conclusion, what this country needs is an outburst of ticket splitting. Republicans should vote for Hillary Clinton, and Democrats should back Republican House and Senate candidates. This will strike most people as counterintuitive, if not foolishy, but there are three good reasons for doing so.

The first is to make a statement about the outcome. Neither party deserves complete victory. Both nominated widely distrusted candidates. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (taken before last week’s final debate), only 40 percent of respondents viewed Clinton positively; a mere 29 percent felt that way about Donald Trump. Parties shouldn’t be rewarded when their popular support is so thin.

The second reason is related: to avoid misinterpretation. Assuming Clinton wins, she and others will claim that the Democrats have a “mandate.” They don’t. Her triumph would be more a repudiation of Trump than an endorsement of her policies. Just because Trump’s bad behavior was extraordinary – routinely crude, hateful and uninformed – does not make Clinton a beloved figure with a compelling agenda.

The same point holds true for Republicans. Retaining control of the House and, possibly, the Senate would not signal the popularity of their political philosophy, whatever it is. The election’s message for Republicans would seem devastating. Losing the White House for the third consecutive time – and five of the last seven elections – would show how out of touch with political reality they are. Their support is mostly defensive: fear of Democratic one-party rule.

The final reason is the most consequential – and the most hypothetical. Divided government, driven by ticket splitting, might actually produce better government.

How could that be? Superficially, the opposite would seem more likely. Divided government would mean paralyzed government; it’s more gridlock. Clearly, that’s possible. It happened during the Obama years. We could have a repeat performance.

But that’s not inevitable. For starters, we would have a new cast of characters. Clinton, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are all “transactional politicians” – they want to get things done – as well as being fierce partisans. They also know that the gridlock of the past eight years hasn’t done either party much good. All this creates reasons to reach mutually acceptable agreements.

There’s a huge backlog of undone legislative business: immigration, corporate tax changes, military spending, climate change, Social Security and Medicare, to name a few. These are controversial and costly issues. Not only may one party be unable to push them through Congress; neither party may want to act alone, because that implies accepting all the blame for unpopular policies. Divided government might force both parties to search for common ground.

We live in an era defined by what Abramowitz and political scientist Steven Webster call “negative partisanship”– an all-consuming fear of your political opponents’ agenda. What you oppose defines your politics as much as what you support. “It’s not just polarization,” says political scientist Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s tribalism. People on the other side are enemies, not just adversaries, who threaten your way of life.”

Political parties have become more ideologically pure, says Abramowitz. That’s one reason ticket splitting has declined. In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, conservative Democrats might vote for Republican presidential candidates; so we got Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan along with Democratic Congresses. Moderate Republicans might favor Democratic congressional candidates. Now, these political fringes have shrunk. “There’s more ideological consistency – and more dislike of the other party,” says Abramowitz.

Well, we’ve tried ideological politics and we’ve learned one thing: It doesn’t work. It doesn’t produce consensus, and it doesn’t produce working majorities, either of the bipartisan or one-party variety. Because parties strive to differentiate themselves, cooperation becomes harder. On both the right and the left, power has flowed to the political fringes, who excel in rhetorical self-righteousness and flunk in legislative accomplishment. Major legislation needs bipartisan support; for confirmation, see Obamacare.

The overriding need of the next president and Congress is for both parties to rebuild their political centers, which – almost certainly – still command the backing of public opinion. Revitalized centrist politics does not guarantee good legislation, but it stands a better chance of producing publicly acceptable legislation. Even this may be a long shot, but it’s our best shot.

Robert J. Samuelson is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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