Though commentators often portray the Democrats and Republicans as mirror images of each other, American politics is not symmetrical. We do not have one party that represents the left in just the way that the other party represents the right. Among congressional Democrats, moderates and conservatives sharply circumscribed what Barack Obama could do on the economy, health care, climate, and other issues even when his party had majorities in both the House and Senate.
An aerial shot of the Fukushima nuclear plants (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)
The last few years have brought a great deal of talk about a "nuclear renaissance" and a new bipartisan consensus in favor of building more nuclear power plants. In the hope of striking a grand bargain on climate legislation during the last Congress, many environmentalists were willing to go along with what President Obama and others held up as a sensible compromise: federal subsidies for nuclear power and more leeway for offshore oil drilling in exchange for a carbon cap-and-trade system. But the BP oil spill helped to quash that idea, and the disaster in Japan should bury it. If we are ever going to get global-warming legislation -- and with denialists in control of the House, that's not likely anytime soon -- it will have to be some other way.
The Arizona state Capitol, which together with the governor's office was put up for sale last year to plug the state's budget deficit (AP/Matt York)
This year, with unemployment still at recession levels, one state after another will lay off teachers, reduce health care for people on Medicaid, defer maintenance on roads and bridges, and make other assorted cuts to balance their budgets. Even though these policies will hinder economic recovery, venerable observers will say the cutbacks are preferable to higher taxes, and some Republicans will relish the chance to slash programs they never liked in the first place.
Fred Linsenmeyer of Phoenix at a health-care town hall meeting held by Sen. John McCain (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
One reason the electoral map turned red in November was that the electorate turned gray. Older Americans went to the polls in droves to vote Republican, while young people stayed home. And one big question about 2012 is whether the elderly will still vote Republican if the GOP can be forced to spell out the implications of its political agenda for Medicare and Social Security.
President Obama calls on Senate Republicans to stop filibustering campaign-finance legislation, July 2010 (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
The voters often surprise us, but this fall's midterm election seems nearly certain to have at least one consequence. For the next two years, Congress will be unable to make any significant headway on the great challenges facing our country. The Republicans may win one or both houses, or they may fall a bit short, but their gains will be enough to stymie substantial legislation to deal with climate, immigration, the economy, and long-term fiscal challenges. A majority of the electorate may think those problems need urgent attention, but when the votes are tallied, they will likely add up to paralysis.