Bill Clinton had two years on "offense," when he tried to push an ambitious domestic agenda, followed by six years on "defense," after his party lost control of Congress in 1994. Barack Obama, despite his determined posture in his State of the Union address, seems to have gotten just one year on "offense," now that Scott Brown's Senate win has Democrats running scared. When a 59-41 Senate majority plus a substantial edge in the House is deemed too slender a margin on which to enact a relatively centrist health reform, we may as well ask it out loud: has America become ungovernable?
This isn't an idle question. The voter anger that's led Obama to retool his rhetoric even as he shrinks his policy aims won't dissipate in the foreseeable future. Instead, the likeliest scenario is that anti-incumbent fervor becomes the default attitude of an electorate whose economic prospects have dimmed. This is not only because of the Great Recession, though families are obviously suffering with unemployment high and credit tight. The scarier truth of American politics is that even after steady economic growth resumes, more and more Americans will find themselves struggling, especially when compared with the ever-rising tide in which they've been taught to believe.
For most Americans, college tuition, health insurance premiums and housing costs will continue to soar faster than incomes. They'll be rising from levels that are already higher than citizens in many other wealthy nations enjoy. Vested interests with a financial stake in the inefficiency of key sectors like health care and education block the kind of reforms that could improve this situation. Meanwhile, up to 100 million Americans live in families that earn less than their parents did at similar age. And this is happening well before America feels the full force of economic integration with rising powers like China and India.
What these trends portend is lasting voter frustration, as it dawns on a widening swath of Americans that the perquisites of middle class life, and the prospects of upward mobility for their children, may increasingly elude them. Importantly, these strains won't change in the two years before the next election, or in the two years after that, or the in two after that, unless policies are introduced that go radically (and controversially) beyond the boundaries of current debate in the United States. What we'll see instead is a cycle in which voters take stock every two years and say: "My insurance premiums are still going up -- we still can't save enough for college, let alone for retirement -- and you people in charge haven't fixed any of this!"
To his credit, President Obama came to office fully aware of the need to think more boldly to meet these challenges. While the health plan emerging from Congress has been imperfect, it was still undeniably ambitious -- a major start toward the goal of sustainable health security for all Americans. If this scale of reform now proves not to be politically viable, Democrats may not think big again for years, as happened after 1994.
The result will be a new age of bipartisan make-believe. Democrats will plump for symbolic measures, like modest tax relief for some middle income earners for child care, or modest freezes in small portions of the budget, both offered by Obama Wednesday night. Such measures, it is said, signal to voters whose "side" Democrats are on, and what their "values" are. The party will rationalize this political pointilism as necessary to maintain power in hopes of finding opportunities to aim higher again down the road.
Republicans, meanwhile, will continue to indulge in the fantasy that broad-based tax cuts are the answer to everything -- a position which, economic nonsense aside, is a mathematical and fiscal impossibility on the eve of the baby boomers' retirement, given that there are already $50 trillion in unfunded liabilities in America's health care and pension programs. Much as Republicans might hope to test the proposition, China will not be willing to fully finance the retirement of America's aging population. If American leaders had any sense, of course, they wouldn't ask.
What will be missing is a common sense yet ambitious synthesis of the best of liberal and conservative thinking, policies that promote economic growth as well as social justice, funded on a scale equal to the magnitude of the challenge. Because such policies require the kind of ambition that voters now paradoxically seem to be punishing, they'll be seen as riskier than timid bromides.
If this scenario holds, the dilemma for America is that neither major party will have a political strategy -- that is, a strategy for acquiring power - that includes solving America's biggest problems. It's hard to imagine America enduring such drift for long without losing its economic standing and self-confidence. Yet given the partisan stasis that is now poised to intensify in Washington, it may be that only a new third force can prod the American system toward real, as opposed to rhetorical, answers.