Divide the government and get things done

“As Maine goes …”

The famous saying may have new meaning. Democrats will probably take the U.S. House of Representatives and hold the Maine House. Both here and in Washington, the Senate will be balanced on a knife’s edge. And the executive branch is definitely going to be led by a Republican in D.C., while I’m going to buck the polls and predict Shawn Moody will take the Blaine House.

We’ll find out next week whether that guess holds true, but let’s assume it does. Where does that leave us, and U.S.?

With divided government. And it is a well-worn story.

The Maine State House. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

In his first midterm election, President Barack Obama lost 63 House seats as part of the 2010 “Tea Party” wave. President Bill Clinton lost 54 House seats in 1994 to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” Both flipped the U.S. House from Democratic to Republican control. President Ronald Reagan saw Democrats take 26 House seats, which simply enlarged the party’s majority.

Those historical examples highlight two possible paths that could be taken. The first is the Obama years. The GOP and Democratic president found themselves in a highly adversarial relationship. In part, this was driven by the way the majority used its power during the Affordable Care Act debacle.

President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and their allies ran roughshod over Republicans. Not only did they fail to get some of the most moderate senators in the country — Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — to buy into the program, but they somehow managed to anger the electorate enough that Ted Kennedy’s successor was a Republican.

After the 2010 polls closed, the newly elected Republican majority was mad. So they decided to battle with the White House. And the president returned fire, ultimately leading to six years of stalemate and comments about pens and phones.

The other option looks back at Presidents Clinton and Reagan. Clinton was a fighter, leading Democratic majorities to pass NAFTA and a sweeping crime bill, both still controversial today.  After losing his congressional backing, he famously changed his strategy to move back towards the center and “triangulate” legislative success. This led to reduced deficits and a massive overhaul of federal welfare programs. With the GOP managing the checkbook and a Democrat signing the checks, things seemed to work.

A similar story holds true with Reagan. He worked closely with House Speaker Tip O’Neill to enact a massive overhaul of federal tax law, while staring down and outspending the Soviet Union. He did not agree with Democrats on everything, but found areas where he could move the ball forward for the sake of the country.

So, if Nov. 7 we awake to find President Donald Trump in the White House, Moody measuring the Blaine House for a new Marden’s couch, and Democratic house speakers in Sara Gideon and Nancy Pelosi leading the lower legislative houses, maybe there will be a chance to put some common sense policy together.

There is plenty to do. Maine’s infrastructure — roads, bridges, ports — are in desperate need of a well-thought out long-term plan insulated from the whims of every new Legislature. The tax changes made at the end of last year have helped bolster economic growth, but our national debt is closing in on $22 trillion. Taken together, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security equal nearly $2 trillion in annual spending; defense remains an outsized $670 billion.

If everyone is responsible — Democrats, Republicans, independents, Greens, Socialists, and Libertarians — for addressing these problems without considering political advantage, then hopefully things can get done. The history of Reagan and Clinton, backed by Speakers O’Neill and Gingrich, may guide the way.

And if Maine voters see fit to split our state government betwixt the parties, we can get a jump on things and model the way. With a strong example, so too can go the nation.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.