In France the President cannot appoint a cabinet of his own choosing, if the legislature is controlled by a majority of the opposition party. Instead, cohabitation results, where the prime minister and most of the cabinet members reflect the views of the party with a legislative majority as much as they do the President. Thus, newly elected President Emmanuel Macron is running very hard to get a majority for his party, En Marche!, in the French General Assembly in the coming legislative elections.
Given our increasing polarization, the United States may soon have periods that have some resemblance to French cohabitation. We are already seeing the end of the opposition party’s traditional deference to the President’s cabinet choices. Democrats have voted against Trump’s picks in far greater numbers than an opposition party has in any previous administration. In many cases no Democrat supported the Trump nominee and in other cases only a few did.
Of course, it is not surprising that a few Democrats opposed almost all his choices. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kristen Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders are thinking of running in 2020 and want to impress Democratic primary voters by the vehemence of their resistance. But the ubiquity of opposition at the beginning of an administration is a first.
The next step in partisan warfare is for the majority party in the Senate to refuse to confirm many of the President’s choices and insist that some members of their party be appointed instead. Nothing in the Constitution prevents a party’s leveraging its power of advice and consent in this manner, only the disappearing tradition of deference.
Some might argue that the unprecedented level of opposition to Trump’s cabinet can be explained by the unprecedented nature of Trump himself and the absence of a honeymoon period. But Republicans in the latter part of the Obama administration cast an extraordinary number of votes against his cabinet picks, suggesting that increasing polarization, not Trump, is the underlying dynamic ending deference. And if the current Democratic opposition is in part payback for Republican opposition to President Obama’s nominees, that is all the more reason to suspect that a Republican majority would payback a Democratic President in kind.
Cohabitation would not occur all at once. A majority party would initially choose a few posts to insist on a compromise choice of its liking. But if party polarization continues, it is possible that we will move some way toward a norm that looks more like cohabitation than the deference that has characterized modern American politics. That change probably advantages the Democrats. Given that the civil service is on the whole left-liberal, Republicans are in greater need of Republican cabinet officials to prod the bureaucracy and speak over their heads to the American people.