Ron Brownstein NOTES that America’s tendency toward so-called divided government at the federal level is of relatively recent vintage.
Since 1968, neither party has simultaneously controlled the White House and Congress for more than four consecutive years. By contrast, through much of our history, Americans routinely empowered one party to lastingly steer the nation by providing it unified authority over the executive and legislative branches for extended periods. Americans now seem to lack enough trust in either party to grant it that long a leash. To the Constitution’s enumerated checks and balances we have informally added our own by habitually dividing power between the parties.
During the nation’s first decades, one party — from Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans to Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans — regularly controlled both Congress and the White House for lengthy stretches. That pattern collapsed in the late 19th century but reached an apex early in the 20th century.
One party simultaneously controlled the White House and Congress for 50 of the 58 years from 1896 through 1954. Republicans held all of Washington’s levers for 14 years under three presidents (1896-1910) and for another 10 under three others (1920-30). Democrats held unified control for six years under Woodrow Wilson, and for 14 under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman (1932-46). Truman and Republican Dwight Eisenhower then managed another six years of unified government between them. During the 1960s, Democrats held the House and Senate throughout the eight years that John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson sat in the White House.
Occasionally during these periods, the governing party lost effective control of Congress (as FDR did after 1938). But mostly, this enduring authority allowed the dominant party to pass, implement, and entrench an agenda that set a distinct and durable direction for the country. From Jefferson and Lincoln to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, presidents from these periods of consolidated control have usually left the deepest marks on America.