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The Guardian/UK

The Year When Nothing Happened

Matthew Yglesias

For liberals in the US, 2007 seems destined to go down as a year of dashed hopes and frustrations. After six years in the political wilderness, including an infuriating 2005 when we were treated to several essays and at least two books about the doomed state of the Democratic party, the good guys were back in the saddle. It's hard now to remember the sense of elation that greeted the results. Pickups were widely expected, and a change in control of the House even forecast as somewhat likely, but almost nobody believed Democrats would secure control of both chambers of Congress. And yet, they did! Things were gonna change.

Except, by and large, they didn't.

The hoped-for dramatic expansion of the child health insurance programme S-Chip? Didn't happen. Transformation of American energy policy? Didn't happen. The "carried interest" loophole that lets private equity billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries? Still open. No Child Left Behind? Unchanged, despite the hubbub. Surveillance? Same as ever. And, of course, the war in Iraq continues despite its steady unpopularity.

What went wrong?

Many lash out in anger at the Democratic leadership for fumbling the ball. And it's true that the leaders, especially senator Harry Reid, have made some mistakes. Mostly, though, the problem isn't the Democrats - it's the Republicans. The combination of George Bush's veto pen and the Republican party's unprecedented use of the filibuster has made it essentially impossible to pass much of anything that's worthwhile.

This isn't the fault of tactical errors on the part of the Democrats. Frustrated liberals are urging Reid to keep the Senate in session and force the Republicans to "really" filibuster rather than just giving up when he can't muster 60 votes for his bills. Reid tried this once, however, and there was no sign of it working. Nor did threats to do this intimidate Democrats when they were in the minority. The reality is that filibustering works, and there's nothing the majority can do to stop the minority from using this tool. Back when the GOP was in the majority and upset about filibustering, I predicted Democrats would come to rue the day that they fought hard to keep it in place. If mistakes were made, they were made back then in 2005, not in 2007.

Or perhaps if mistakes were made, they were made in raising expectations too high. When the Democrats unveiled their campaign agenda in 2006, you'll recall, nobody actually expected them to win. The agenda was supposed to win votes, sure. It was supposed to win seats, even. But winning the House and Senate was considered so unlikely that perhaps nobody really considered the dangers of promising too much.

It's something worth keeping in mind as we look at the presidential race. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama are all running on substantively similar domestic policy platforms, and primarily arguing about who has the best chance of getting things through. Looking back on 2007, one important thing to keep in mind is that tactics and "theories of change" can't overcome basic math - you either have the votes to pass your bills or you don't, and with all three candidates promising much, much, much more than the Democratic Congress ever did, there's real reason to doubt that the votes will be there.

Most of all, though, looking back at the Year When Nothing Happened serves as a reminder of what a risky political strategy the Republicans are employing. Democrats get red in the face describing how much more frequently the opposition has filibustered than has any previous minority. It seems doubtful, however, that earlier minority parties were more circumspect out of deep feelings of generosity. Rather, they most likely feared one of the majority's most potent powers: as the party in charge, you bring up for a vote only the issues you want to bring up for a vote, which is to say issues you're pretty sure will cut your way in electoral terms. In blocking action across the board, the GOP is taking the chance that voters will deal them further blows in 2008.

Already, the basic electoral map is working against them - since 2002 was such a good year for Republicans, most of the seats up for grabs are ones they already hold. And despite liberal worries that shoddy press coverage has failed to pin the blame for inaction where it belongs, the only polling on the question I've been able to find showed 51% of the public blaming "Bush and Republicans in Congress" for inaction, to just 25% blaming Democrats.

Similarly, GOP confidence that the immigration issue and declining levels of violence in Iraq will see them through seems misplaced. Immigration failed to save House Republicans in 2006 and failed to save Virginia state legislature candidates in 2007. Why should 2008 be any different? Meanwhile, insofar as the "surge" has reduced violence in Iraq without solving the underlying conflicts, violence seems likely to return in 2008. On top of that, the national economy seems distinctly in a funk, with slowing holiday retail sales, declining house prices and continued uncertainty in the credit markets. Objectively, the circumstances point toward Republican conciliation, but instead they've gone for maximum obstruction.

But maybe I'm wrong. If the GOP prospers at the next election, 2007 will go down as a crucial year in American political history - the year Mitch McConnell proved that there's no downside to relentless filibusters of popular legislation. If that's how it works out, we can expect use of the tactic to escalate dramatically, leading, perhaps, to some kind of crisis. Alternatively, it may turn out to have been a debacle - the year in which a party facing tough political headwinds chose to jump off the cliff with massive obstructionism.

What seems unlikely is that our current impression of it as a year when nothing changed will remain in place. The inaction itself is a big story, albeit one whose ending is as yet uncertain. Matthew Yglesias is staff writer at the American Prospect and author of an eponymous blog. His writing has also appeared in Foreign Policy, Slate and the New York Times Magazine.

© 2007 The Guardian

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