It’s remarkable: one year ago, when the Obama administration started, Democrats had fifty-nine votes in the Senate (though two were in the hospital (Kennedy & Byrd) and one, Al Franken, would not be seated because of frivolous Republican lawsuits). At the time, we were at an historic moment where big ideas were not only necessary, but possible. As such, the administration and Congress charged forward with plans for economic stimulus, labor reform, and health care reform.

A year later the economic stimulus has begun to work, labor reform has been moved to a back-burner about 900 miles from the President’s kitchen, and health care reform is perceived as a legislative impossibility…because Democrats have a mere fifty-nine votes in the Senate.

Fifty-nine votes is not a hurdle today any more than fifty-nine votes, which really meant fifty-six votes, was a hurdle in January, 2009. Fifty-nine votes, when used as a stated or implicit excuse for not accomplishing Democratic goals, is pure bunk. Not getting things done is solely going to be attributable to failures of leadership by the White House and the Democratic Senate leadership team. What is leadership? Partly it’s making an effective public case for a policy issue. Partly it is making clear to your caucus that they are safe to support the agenda you want them to support. Partly it is whipping votes through horse-trading, cajoling, and threatening senators to vote the right way. As far as I can tell, none of these things have been happening, particularly since the loss of the special election.

To wit, see this article in today’s New York Times. While it has an optimistic title, “Obama Maps a Way Forward for a Health Overhaul,” the title actual is belied by the text of the article, which includes this line: “Mr. Obama still did not chart a specific legislative strategy for moving a bill through Congress.” I’d hazard that it’s hard to “map a way forward” without “chart[ing] a specific legislative strategy”. I suppose Obama’s map for health care legislation since the Massachusetts loss look something like this:

  1. Have a real debate on the issues
  2. ????
  3. Sign the bill into law!

This isn’t leadership. Fleshing out #2 would be leadership. And let’s be clear: Harry Reid could do a whole lot to fill in the details here, but he isn’t either. The blame isn’t all Obama’s, but a preponderance of it, at this point in time, certainly is. After all, he was one of the loudest voices for saying that when Democrats had fifty-six functional votes in the Senate that this was the moment in history to pass health care reform. That he cannot muster the same confidence when he has three more voting Senators in the Democratic caucus is a disaster of, to borrow his word, historic consequences.

Democrats are looking for excuses to fail, but I for one do not buy it and I’m tired of it being sold to me by people who I and millions of people like me in the Democratic base have spent years working for, donating to, and voting for. Forget explaining to me why forty-one is greater than fifty-nine – this bit of idiocy is so solidified in Democratic conventional wisdom that nothing can dislodge it now. Explain to me why fifty-six is greater than fifty-nine.  Maybe then I’ll understand why this President and this Party have effectively abdicated their responsibility to get done the things they promised us they would get done.

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