The Fallacy of a Democratic Supermajority

Since Scott Brown's surprising defeat of Martha Coakely in the race for Edward Kennedy's Senate seat, there has been a significant amount of ink dedicated to the loss of the Democratic supermajority -- the coveted 60-seat filibuster-proof majority in the United States Senate. In the coming years, this supermajority would have allowed for carte blanche policy making and unfettered Democratic idealism to become the law of the land. It would have prevented an obstructionist opposition party from hampering progress and would have put the country back on track for a New Deal in a new century. All of this would have been great -- if it were true.

Many in the Democratic establishment believed that the 2008 election victories were tantamount to a political revolution: a shift away from the Karl Rovian-politics that favor the few "haves" toward a more progressive agenda of New Deals and Great Societies. Republicans bemoaned their loss of a standard bearer and the need to find a better conservative voice. Democrats, heady with the power shift in the Senate, prophesied health care for all and clean energy policies. However, all of these outcomes and predictions were predicated on a lethal fallacy -- that the Democrats ever actually held a filibuster-proof supermajority.

The notion of a supermajority is an important one. It has figured prominently in the discussions of talking heads and entered the collective consciousness. It suggests that the party with 60 votes can press its agenda with limited or no input from anyone else. It also bolsters the perception that any failings are entirely due to the political party in charge. During the campaign, Democratic leaders spoke of the importance of a 60-seat victory to overcome Bush policies while strategists excited the base by speaking of a perfect storm for a filibuster-proof Senate. And once the results of November 4, 2008 were in, Democrats rejoiced in their new-found political power.

However, a simple deconstruction of the Senate seats belies the vigor of the assumed Democratic supermajority. On the surface, there were 60 Democratic votes. But, look more closely. First, you'll see that two of the supermajority seats were held by Independents that merely caucus with the Democrats. One of those two Independents was a featured speaker at the Republican Convention. Another member of the fabled 60 was a five-term Republican senator from Pennsylvania that switched parties fearing a primary challenge.

Second, other seats were gained in the not-exactly-liberal states of Alaska, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia. These and other seats in both houses of Congress were won by replacing moderate Republicans with moderate or conservative Democrats. Sure, one can argue that there were 58 (now 57) Senators with a "D" next to their name, but this fact doesn't lead to cohesive, unilateral views or votes. The premise of an unfettered supermajority is that the 60 will be a bloc -- and this 60 was never a bloc. It is a coalition of individuals with some similarities but certainly not enough to guarantee a unified vote on a progressive Democratic platform.

Ultimately, the victories did not, as Matt Bai rightfully noted in a recent New York Times piece, mark an ideological shift.

The fundamental mistake that Republican and Democratic strategists each made after their respective takeovers, was to believe that their victories represented an ideological shift among independent voters, the kind of sweeping philosophical reassessment ... that would empower a party for generations to come.

Thus, from a governance standpoint, it was strategic mistake on the part of Democrats to believe that refocusing on an increasingly liberal agenda would somehow be green-lighted through Congress. The president himself, as he reiterated at a recent GOP retreat, is no ideologue. His past victories have spoken to his realism -- that political incrementalism (that is policies that move toward a positive goal and cause -- albeit slowly) is better than unsuccessfully attempting to ram issues through an unwilling public and governance structure.

Through all this, one of the largest Democratic mistakes hasn't been the lack of involvement from the Republican Party (although it wouldn't kill both sides to improve bipartisanship); it has been in misreading our own Democratic majority. The coalition that voted for our new majority was not ushering in a new era of liberalism. If we continue to disrespect these votes and policy suggestions as invalid or inferior to more progressive beliefs, we will continue to fail on a legislative front.

I've heard the arguments. That the results in Massachusetts were a wake-up call to compromising Democrats. That the willingness to allow for input has put forth terrible amendments on the health care bill or even stymied the process. Sure, there are some valid points there. But the country on a whole is not dying to get behind an ultra-progressive agenda regardless of how good some of the ideas might be.

If we do not start to accept incremental advancements we can be assured that the 2010 midterm elections will end all hope of an era of new liberalism. These changes should be seen simply as building blocks toward achieving an ultimate goal. Eliminating health insurance agencies from excluding individuals based on pre-existing conditions is real reform; is it complete reform? No. Is it a building block and a victory? Absolutely. Rather than lamenting a loss of power that was illusory at best, Democrats should lay these building blocks -- for they are the true foundation of change.