Patrick Therriault, Columnist
Ideology: Republican | Writing from: Connecticut
It happened first in the UK. In May, Brits went to their local polling stations with a distinct distaste for the three major parties, particularly the then-ruling Labour Party. After 13 years at the helm, which produced the controversial decision to join in on the U.S.’s War on Terror as well as the largest economic downturn since the Second World War, the public had tired of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his cohorts. However, neither were they overwhelmingly in favor of the other options. The result: the first “hung parliament” since the 1970s, with the three national parties splitting the vote and no one party winning a majority of seats in Parliament. The Conservative Party, under David Cameron, reached out to the third-place Liberal Democrat Party, under Nick Clegg, and the two agreed to form a coalition government. In a recent article in the Economist, editor Walter Bagehot writes of the synergies and potential for internal strife of the UK’s new government. So far, it seems to be going relatively well for two parties that few saw coming together amicably before this year.
Now in Australia, where politics has always been a bit less refined than the Queen would prefer, things have taken a similar turn. How they arrived in their current situation requires brief exposition. In 2007, Labour leader Kevin Rudd and his deputy leader, Julia Gillard, swept into power with a large majority in the Australian Parliament. The former government had met an untimely end over its decision to involve Australian forces in the Iraq War. With a considerable mandate, the Rudd/Gillard team carried Australia through the global economic crisis nearly unscathed and sustained their popularity with a broad base of voters. Since the start of 2010, however, Rudd increasingly came under fire from both the opposition and inside his own party over decisions relating to climate change, mining taxes and immigration legislation—three historical political hot potatoes down under. Attempting to save her party’s government from a vote of no confidence in Parliament, Ms. Gillard persuaded Mr. Rudd to step down from his position. In June, she was appointed Australia’s first female Prime Minister, and her Labour Party’s standing in polls recovered some lost ground as she rescinded portions of Mr. Rudd’s policy proposals. Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on her initial popularity, Ms. Gillard called for a national election to consolidate Labour’s position in Parliament. As is turns out, the people of Australia are just as unforgiving as their British cousins, as the elections votes were split among the four largest Australian political parties. Now, Ms. Gillard and her Conservative counterpart,Tony Abbott of the Liberal-National Party, are both courting the newly popular Green Party to construct a coalition government. An outcome is not yet certain, though a coalition government of some construct is surely the future of Australia’s government.
One can not help but think of the similarities between these two English-speaking countries and the U.S.’s own upcoming national election. Despite the structural differences between the Parliamentary and Presidential government systems, there is a distinct possibility that a “hung Congress” may be the outcome of November’s election. By this it is meant that the Republicans look likely to take back control of the U.S. House and Senate but not with a large enough majority to be effective under a sitting Democrat in the White House without a little cooperation.
According to Real Clear Politics (RCP), an independent political website, polling suggests Republicans have a held a slight edge over Democrats in terms of public approval for the entire month of August. The RCP aggregate poll shows Americans approval of Congressional Republicans is 4.3 percentage points higher than for Democrats as of this past week. RCP also forecasts that Republicans could take back the House of Representatives with up to a 23 seat majority in November if they win all of the 35 “toss up seats” where voters are least consistent in their party preferences. They are more likely to win much closer to the 218 seats needed for a majority in the chamber. This would lead to smaller possible margins of error when voting along partisan lines on legislation in the upcoming Congressional session. Blue-dog Democrats and moderate Republicans would need to be constantly accommodated, though when acting in a seamlessly coordinated manor, Republicans could stand and deliver against the Obama policy agenda.
The likely Republican majority looks even narrower in the Senate chamber, where Democrats have more “safe” seats and fewer members up for election. Were Republicans to win a simple majority in the Senate, it would fall short of the 60-vote filibuster threshold, which seems to be the only rule still effective in the draconian upper-chamber these days. Democrats and Republicans would be forced consistently to debate and compromise over even the most simple of bills.
In effect, a “hung Congress” would be delivered by the American voters, who have quickly re-centered after the Democrats’ boisterous two-year stint in Washington but retain graphic memories of Congress run by Republicans as well. As the economy’s fledging recovery has ground to a crawl in the past quarter and employment has remained stubbornly high despite unprecedented stimulus measures to jump start activity, Americans have become increasingly displeased with those in charge. They also remember who was in power when the economic downturn began. Polling shows that the share of Americans who believe the country is on the “wrong track” has reached its highest level since the start of 2009—at 61.2 percent in August.
A “throw the bums out” mentality, much like the one that cleared out the Labour governments in both the UK and Australia, seems to still be resonating in the U.S. However, is it strong enough to deliver the Republicans a clear majority in both chambers? This week’s primaries suggest it may not be, with incumbents securing a spot on the November ballot in many districts. When the chips fall on election day, it may yield a Congress that is forced to work together and with the White House to get anything done, let alone produce results on controversial issues like immigration and what to do about the economy. Yet, forced bi-partisanship by way of a “hung Congress” may be better than the years of bickering that has pushed nearly two-thirds of Americans to believe the country is on the wrong track.