There is a certain rhythm to events like the Heritage Foundation's January forum on filibuster reform. The speaker, in this case Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, says something such as, "There is no doubt the Senate has been reduced to a shadow of itself as the world's greatest deliberative body." Then, like clockwork, the speaker blames Democrats for the predicament: "The demise of the Senate is not because Republicans seek to filibuster. The real obstructionists have been the Democratic majority."
This wasn't just a typical Washington panel on Senate procedure; it was part of the conservative response to filibuster reforms proposed at the beginning of this Congress by the Democratic majority. Indeed, Alexander was articulating the boilerplate Republican response to the plan: The Senate isn't broken; Democrats are trying to eliminate deliberation, and this is a dangerous power grab. Of course, the actual proposal for filibuster reform was meant to enhance debate, not end it. Under the plan, if at least 41 senators voted against a motion to end debate, the chamber would move into a period of extended debate. As long as someone is willing to talk, debate continues. The minority is only cut off when no one is willing -- or available -- to speak in defense of delay.
At the Heritage event, it was hard not to be struck by the participants' unwavering belief that Democrats were solely responsible for the Senate's dysfunctions. As Alexander put it, "The reform the Senate needs is a change in its behavior, not a change in its rules." He even had statistics! "The majority leader has used his power to cut off all amendments and debate 44 times. More than the last six majority leaders combined," Alexander said. Did you catch that? It's not that Republican senators have used the amendment process to delay and block legislation an unprecedented number of times; it's that Harry Reid is a mean, power-hungry liberal.
In the scheme of things, Alexander's complaints pale in comparison to, for instance, the charges levied against the Democratic Party during the 1884 presidential election (then, Dems were the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion"). Still, the "blame Democrats first" theme of the Heritage event reflects a broader quirk of the conservative movement. If liberalism is always the problem, then conservatism can't fail; it can only be failed. The Democratic push for filibuster reform wasn't inspired by Republicans' abuse of the procedure but came about because liberals are tricky despots in training.
Indeed, the rhetoric of the Tea Party is a version of this, writ large. America's current structural problems weren't created by eight years of unified conservative governance and its attendant spending spree of wars, tax cuts, and more tax cuts. No, we have problems because Democrats give handouts to poor people. To these Republicans, "real conservatism" has never been tried. The George W. Bush years? They don't count. After all, as Byron York writes in The Washington Examiner, "You can argue whether Bush was a fiscal conservative at any time in his political career, but he certainly wasn't in the White House." Similarly, conservative hyper-partisan Erick Erickson, editor of the blog Red State, emphatically declared that "George W. Bush is not a conservative." To nearly every Republican of prominence, Bush's failure wasn't an opportunity to reflect on conservative policies as much as it was a chance to disavow Bush as a conservative.
The talking point extends beyond Bush. According to most Republicans, their losses in 2006 and 2008 weren't due to the Iraq War or the near collapse of the global financial system. No, voters were punishing the party for its failure to adhere to conservative principles. "We conservatives have not done a good enough job of just laying out basically who we are, because we make the mistake of assuming people know," said Rush Limbaugh at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference, as he explained John McCain's loss in the 2008 presidential election. Glenn Beck called John McCain a "weird progressive," and Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, blamed the 2008 loss on the fact that "we strayed from our principles of limited government, individual responsibility and economic freedom. ... Those are the brand of the Republican Party, and people feel that we betrayed the brand."
This stands in contrast with the Democratic response to an election loss or policy failure. When a small group of elderly conservatives are suddenly vocal about the health-care law -- "keep government away from our Medicare!" -- Democrats don't take to cable news shows and op-ed pages to declare the law is insufficiently liberal. No, moderate Dems decide that the American people want them to slow down on health-care reform. "Let's not rush it. Let's get it right and ensure that the American people get the kind of health care they need and deserve," Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas said in July 2009 on CNN's American Morning. Last year, after Republican Scott Brown won a Massachusetts special election against Martha Coakley, one of the most unimpressive politicians in recent memory, Democrats nearly consumed themselves in panic. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia called on Democrats to suspend all votes on health-care legislation, while then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed that she lacked the support for a further health-care vote in the House. It was embarrassing.
It would be interesting to see a world in which Democrats behaved like Republicans, instead of running away from their shadow at every opportunity. In this parallel world -- where Democrats are convinced of their infallibility -- an event like Coakley's loss isn't a setback for liberals. "It's clear that Coakley wasn't liberal enough for Massachusetts," Earth-2 Majority Leader Steny Hoyer would say. "Had she endorsed universal health care for illegal immigrants, she might have had a chance." On this bizarro Earth, if Republicans should happen to win the House of Representatives and make large gains elsewhere, Democrats would insist that the country is still a "center-left nation" instead of declaring the end of liberal governance.
Back to the real world. In all likelihood, Barack Obama will win re-election in 2012. But if he doesn't, and Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin moves into the White House, Democrats should step far away from the panic button. They should take a page from the GOP and forget that the election even happened. The truth is that Americans can tolerate a loser, provided he loses well. If the Bush years taught us anything, it's that it doesn't matter that President Palin would be a complete disaster for the country as long as Democrats can coolly walk away from the wreckage -- in slow motion -- like the star in a bad action film.