The dysfunction of American democracy has become a standard bit of conventional wisdom. It's certainly true that a bias against government action is baked into our constitutional cake, with its checks, balances, and multiple veto points. It's also true that conservative obstructionism has reached a new peak in recent years. The prime source of today's extreme dysfunction is less the republic than the Republican Party.
A number of smart commentators, from E.J. Dionne to John Podesta, have aptly observed that we now have a semi-parliamentary system, in which the opposition party can block but the governing party can't govern. And despite Barack Obama's best efforts to pursue common ground, the Republicans have cynically concluded that rendering the Democrats ineffectual is preferable to coming together to solve national problems.
It has always been difficult in America for the governing party to govern. Only twice in the past century -- the New Deal era between 1933 and 1938 and the 89th Congress of Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society -- did progressive Dem-ocrats have a large enough margin in Congress coupled with real presidential leadership to enact major reforms. The particulars were different then, with moderate and liberal Republicans roughly offset by racist Dixiecrats. The filibuster was reserved for special (racial) occasions. But the general problem would be familiar to today's critics of democratic dysfunction. James MacGregor Burns' classic, The Deadlock of Democracy, was written nearly half a century ago.
What makes the difference, then as now, is the presence or absence of presidential leadership. It takes the power of a president to define national problems, mobilize public opinion, create a new progressive political center, move Congress to act, and hose away obstructionists. That's what Franklin D. Roosevelt had to do to win the New Deal, and what Johnson did to prevail on civil rights. Though John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton during his first two years actually had slightly larger majorities in Congress than Obama does today, all had difficulty enacting their programs. None possessed the kind of leadership gifts that FDR and LBJ had.
Despite his exceptional potential, Obama dismayed his progressive base in his first year in office by clinging to an illusion of bipartisanship long after Republicans made clear that their only goal was to destroy him. But since early March, something potentially transformative has happened. The seeker of common ground has metamorphosed into a fighting partisan. Faced with the prospect of a humiliating, defining defeat on health reform, Obama has begun exercising the kind of leadership that his admirers discerned during the campaign.
Things that were seemingly impossible have suddenly be-come necessary to avert a rout. Passing legislation in the Senate by simple majority, despite Republican whining, is now thinkable. So is passing legislation in the House with Democrats only. Despite warnings by the likes of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell that a vote in favor of the bill would mean retribution by the voters, it has dawned on skeptical Democratic legislators that whatever the measure's deficiencies, going before the voters in November as the can-do party is preferable to facing re- election as the ineffectual one.
In our uniquely structured hobbled democracy, with its bias against action, presidential leadership has always been the game changer. The search for common ground with the Republicans is one brand of leadership, but it turns out to be the wrong one today.
Progressives who dislike aspects of this bill should nonetheless be hoping that Obama's strategic shift has not come too late. With Democrats at last willing to govern by majority rule and Obama now willing to confront both Republican and industry obstructionism, the deficient features of the bill can more easily be changed. More important, his leadership will make him a more compelling president.
If Obama does emerge as both an effective partisan and a progressive who delivers, the pundits' morning line will change overnight. The president will be depicted as a giant-killer. That can only be good both for his general public approval and for his support among Democrats. The party base, which has been in agony about Obama's dithering, will be newly energized.
The nation still faces a crisis too severe to indulge the luxury of obstructionism. For now, Democrats should be willing to use reconciliation as necessary. Next January, Senate Democrats should scrap the filibuster rule once and for all.
And if his near-death experience on health care has finally ended his futile quest for a bipartisan consensus, Obama will be in a better position to deliver on other fronts. Let's hope that we are seeing a real turning point in his presidency.