60 Was the Loneliest Number

The consequences of Republican Scott Brown's victory in the race for the Senate seat from Massachusetts fall into two categories. The first involves the optics of the race itself and the message Brown's victory sends, about Obama's first year, the economy, anti-incumbent sentiment, and the generalized "fuck 'em all" feeling that seems to burst forth in American politics at times of stress. (The pollster Stan Greenberg a few years ago developed a taxonomy of voters that included the useful categories "F-You Boys" and "F-You Old Men," groups that were quiet in 2008 but were heard from yesterday.) That message is somewhat complicated coming from Massachusetts and was provoked by the failure of a candidate who might as well have been a double agent for the Republican National Committee, but it won't be perceived that way.

To the extent that the outcome is perceived as the beginning of the end of the Obama administration, and a one-blue-state equivalent to the 1994 Republican takeover, it is potentially a disaster. But that is the kind of straight-line projection that is the stock-in-trade of both Chris Matthews and the folks at OpenLeft.com, which produces the wild gyrations from ecstasy to despair that rarely prove correct. To the extent that it is perceived as an opportunity to press the reset button on the administration, to focus on the economy, and to go to the people rather than work inside Congress, with almost 11 months before the next election, it is potentially healthy.

The second set of consequences is the set of practical ones, starting with the loss of the "filibuster-proof Senate." And here, at the risk of seeming Pollyanna-ish, I want to make the case that having exactly 60 votes put Democrats -- and good policy -- in an excruciatingly vulnerable position. Of all the possible numbers of senators, between 51 and 100, that a party could have, 60 is arguably the worst. That is, there never was a "filibuster-proof Senate." Having exactly 60 votes made it a filibuster-dependent Senate.

Everything came down to a question of whether the party could break a filibuster -- and 90 percent of the time on big questions, with the single exception of a miraculous and not-final vote on health reform, the party would not be able to. With 60 votes, Democrats were expected to be able to get things done, and bloggers on the left could chide Max Baucus for wasting six weeks trying to negotiate with some Republicans on health care. Yet in the end, achieving anything would be entirely dependent on de facto co-presidents Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, one a genuinely malevolent force and the other just a hack, both of whom damaged the public perception of the health-care bill in significant ways. (Imagine the reception for a health bill that didn't include the poisonous payoff to Nebraska to buy Nelson's vote -- the strongest talking point the bill's opponents discovered -- and did include Medicare buy-in for those ages 55 to 64, which would have provided an immediate tangible benefit for the population that needs it most, but which Lieberman scuttled!)

Sixty votes not only put Lieberman and Nelson in charge, it meant that every little twist and turn in political life became the difference between total policy deadlock and historically breathtaking progress. A butterfly flaps its wings in Uruguay, and health reform survives or dies. Just as a few hundred votes in Minnesota created the 60-vote majority, a bizarrely incompetent candidate in Massachusetts took it away, but if it had not been that, it would have been something else. Consider the possibility of 92-year-old Robert C. Byrd being unable to vote but not resigning, to take only the most easily predictable event. There will always be unusual elections, flawed candidates, scandals, health problems, deaths (14 Democratic senators are 70 or older), odd retirements, not to mention senators who can't stick with the party because they face a tough re-election or because a bill affects their state in a particular way. (A Democrats-only 60-vote majority on cap-and-trade, for example, has never been plausible.) A supermajority so fragile is really no supermajority at all.

Yet the perception of a Democratic supermajority freed Republicans from any responsibility to engage at all. With complete impunity, they were able to unite in opposition to a health bill that in other years they would have called their own. Rather than propose serious amendments, or try to improve things they didn't like, they were able to denounce the whole thing as being rammed through on a partisan basis. Conservative writer Byron York left me sputtering in a recent episode of Bloggingheads when he observed -- almost correctly -- that no major piece of social legislation had ever been put through on a completely partisan basis. Yes -- with the exception of the massive Clinton 1993 budget -- but never had a minority party so completely opted out of governance. Having 41 votes makes nonparticipation just a little less credible. If the perceived lesson of Massachusetts, together with the practical reality of a Senate that no longer has a 60-vote majority, is that we need more bipartisanship, for which party does that create a greater obligation to change? The majority that has spent the entire year in what some thought was a futile quest to build bridges? Or the one that walked away?

Yes, yes, I know that's a silly and rhetorical question because Republicans aren't playing for legislative wins; they're playing for total dominance. But the reality is that purely partisan governance in this country is almost always impossible, even using the budget reconciliation process. As much as the Bush administration used every possible partisan tool to enact its agenda, most of its major legislative achievements came with Democratic votes, even if Democrats were shut out of negotiations. When Bush won legislative victories, it was because he, together with Republicans in Congress, set an agenda that Democrats -- sometimes just a few -- felt they had to support. It was the power to set the agenda that Bush used ruthlessly, not just the power to pass bills.

Obama is in a fortunate position compared to Bill Clinton right before and after the 1994 Republican takeover. He, and Democrats in Congress, still has both the formal and the moral power to set the agenda. They should think carefully about setting it in a way that not only produces good results -- because in times like these, results, not spin, are what matter -- but also forces the Republicans to do more than stand on the sidelines. He can be bipartisan, but he has to force the opposition party to offer alternatives if they have them and cooperate if they don't. If he does that, a return to productive progressive governance could be unexpectedly quick.

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