The story in Washington is that President Barack Obama and the Democrats are reeling in the wake of two recent decisions.
The first was a choice by the masses of Massachusetts: They sent Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate in Ted Kennedy's former seat. The second was an edict by five Washington elites: In its 5-4 Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court rescinded the long-standing prohibition against corporations using business income to make campaign contributions.
A one-seat reduction in what was a 60-seat Democratic majority, coupled with a one-vote majority on a Supreme Court, have combined to end the Obama era and stifle the entire Democratic agenda. The net gains since 2006 of 15 Senate and 51 House Democratic seats, plus a winning presidential vote share for Mr. Obama that exceeded those of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush - all of that has vanished, an entire movement stalled in a span of about 48 hours.
The president and his partisans overlook the Massachusetts result at their peril. But the big news - frustrating as it should be for Democrats and liberals - is hardly news at all, for the asymmetries that favor conservatism as an ideological orientation, and the status quo in American politics more generally, are an old and familiar story for which last week was merely the newest chapter.
Let me preface the following analogy by clarifying that I am not equating conservatives or Republicans to terrorists. But enacting progressive change is akin to defending against terror in one important way: Progressives must win repeatedly and at every stage, whereas those opposed to change typically need to win but once, at any stage. Power is as power resists.
Consider, for example, that Republican George W. Bush was able to push not one but three far-from-popular income tax cuts through a Congress boasting smaller Republican majorities than those the Democrats enjoy today. Thanks to the Republican voting tendencies of smaller states, the GOP's Senate majority at the time represented fewer Americans nationally than did the Democratic minorities.
What this and other juxtapositions tell us is that a supermajority is needed to govern from the center-left, whereas a simple majority or even a minority is capable of governing from the center-right. See, for example, the 2000 election result.
Despite the built-in advantages, Republicans aren't shy about obstruction. Filibustering was half as common during the first six years of the Bush administration, when Democrats were the Senate's minority party, than during the three-year era of Republican minorities since.
According to the official Senate Web site, filed cloture motions jumped annually from 34 to 69; votes on cloture grew from 27 to 50; and invoked clotures ballooned from 13 to 33. Apparently, conservatives hate legislator-made law as much as they hate judge-made law. But relax: Because the filibuster is not mentioned in the Constitution, any moment now the "constructionist" Supreme Court will surely issue a ruling to ban it.
When conservative commentators grumble that "America is a center-right nation," they are right in one, undeniable sense: The institutional dynamics of American politics favor doing less in general, and yet more in the pursuit and preservation of powerful, monied interests. Nobody familiar with the long, slow, costly political battles for abolition, labor equality, consumer protection, civil rights and women's rights would dare argue otherwise.
This is why the flip of a single Senate seat means more for obstructionism than it ever could for progressivism. All ties go to the status quo even though, with 59 percent Democratic majorities in each chamber, Congress is hardly split evenly.
Indeed, how else to explain the following paradox: After six decades of policy conflict, followed by two years of debates among presidential candidates from both parties and a yearlong national discourse over specifics, health care reform in 2009 was depicted by opponents as somehow being forced quickly and thoughtlessly down Americans' throats; yet just a year earlier, when in September 2008 major investment firms faced their possible demise, financial titans and their Washington supplicants joined in an eight-day emergency session to move the government levers needed to bail out the very institutions that caused the economic crisis.
And now those same titans can funnel even more money to those same supplicants, thanks to the decision by the conservative activists controlling the Supreme Court. This merry band, who cherish "precedent" right up until the moment their nominations are confirmed, essentially ruled that a corporation has the same rights as a citizen. Let's end our self-delusions about popular rule and just re-write the Constitution's preamble to read, "We the corporations, in order to form a more perfect balance sheet ..."
The White House and the Democratic leadership deserve ample blame for the political false starts and policy failures of the past year. More than most, they ought to know change faces more and bigger hurdles than doing nothing.