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Democrats Have 60 Votes. What Will They Do With Them?

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In a 5-0 decision earlier today, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that "Al Franken received the highest number of votes legally cast and is entitled under Minn. Stat. § 204C.40 (2008) to receive the certificate of election as United States Senator from the State of Minnesota." That gives the Democrats 60 votes in the Senate. Enough, in theory, to overcome the filibuster.

It's worth meditating for a moment on how quickly things change in politics. Sixty votes in the Senate is, well, a lot of votes. The last time either party achieved the magic number was 1974, when Democrats took control in the aftermath of Watergate. It took 34 years, in other words, for either political party to become that electorally dominant again.

And six years ago, it didn't look like the Democrats were well-placed to become that party. The 2002 and 2004 elections didn't, in retrospect, deliver particularly decisive wins to the Republican Party. But they were sure treated that way. The bookshelves were thick with titles like "The Way to Win, One Party Country" and "Building Red America." (Ronald Brownstein reexamined some of these books here.) The way to win, as it happened, was Karl Rove's way. And the country's one party? The Republicans. I remember watching Bill Kristol on the "Daily Show" around that time. "I'm here to tell you," he said to Jon Stewart, "that the worm will turn again and my party will lose. Just you wait." If memory serves, Stewart's response was to pretend to sob helplessly.

But just as the Republican dominance in the early-Oughts was illusory, and the 61 Democrats who controlled the Senate in 1978 were about to be run over by the Reagan Revolution, it's a pretty safe bet that Democrats won't hold these margins for long. As such, there are two ways to think about a 60-vote majority. One way is in terms of how long you can keep it. The other is in terms of how much you can achieve with it. The latter strategy means forcing risky votes from vulnerable senators in order to secure enduring accomplishments on things like health-care reform and cap-and-trade. It means accepting, as Kristol said, that the worm will turn, and the question is what the world looks like when it does.


Photo credit: Christopher Hand Photo .

By Ezra Klein  |  June 30, 2009; 3:16 PM ET
 
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Comments

The lesson from Brownstein's review: Don't trust authors named "Tom." I learned that years ago from Friedman.

Posted by: Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces | June 30, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

As noted in the Star-Tribune article, there are still some caveats:

The MN supreme court did not require Gov. Pawlenty to sign the election certificate. Their decision said merely said that Mr. Franken was entitled to the certificate. Gov. Pawlenty may use that to continue to stall.

Norm Coleman has a 10-day window to request a re-trial before the MN supreme court. Gov. Pawlenty will almost assuredly wait until the end of that window.

Finally, especially with the 10-day window, Mr. Coleman has time to appeal to the federal court system, further delaying things.

Posted by: devpsychsmith | June 30, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

"One way is in terms of how long you can keep it. The other is in terms of how much you can achieve with it."

Interesting. Why there is no faith that maximum achievement guarantees the left keeps the seats? Why does the left's ambitions include achievements the people might throw them out over?

Ezra, does it ever occur to you that your very premises are questionable? And everything else is based on that, huh?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | June 30, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

The questionable premise here is that, eventually, Democrats will lose seats, as all dominant majorites in history have before them, and that a higher-risk strategy of major achievement might also come with higher risk for legislative failure?

Which part of this, exactly, do you find unconvincing?

Posted by: Ezra Klein | June 30, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

"Which part of this, exactly, do you find unconvincing?"

To use your word: the *risk*. Are your planks things people want, or aren't they? Why is there risk?

I never worry for a second that if I could set people free they'd throw me out of office. The fact that I'd like to see them free implies that having power over them is unimportant. I just want my own freedom.

Your objectives don't seem to work that way at all, do they? As I said, even you lack faith that what you want to do with government is what people actually want.

You have to choose between keeping power over people and using the power to do what you want to do to them. It's not just that what you want for people is something they won't like -- you obviously know they won't. But it's that you don't even question how you came to desire government that you yourself know people won't actually tolerate.

And it's so matter-of-fact to you -- you don't even see how bizarre it is. Do liberals have a cause people would rally around, or one that must be imposed on them? Do you even know the difference?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | June 30, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

The electoral challenge for Republicans right now is that conservatism (or nihilistic libertarianism) has no convincing solutions to the biggest problems facing the country. Inevitably, though, a set of problems will arise where conservatism has plausible solutions. Then "worm will turn." It has nothing to do with liberalism not "do[ing] with government [] what people actually want."

Posted by: JEinATL | June 30, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

At least we've presumably heard the last of attempts to blame Republicans if the health care ideal doesn't get paased. The government's wholly in your hands now, Ezra. No excuses.

Posted by: tomtildrum | June 30, 2009 5:01 PM | Report abuse

JEinATL:
"The electoral challenge for Republicans right now is that conservatism (or nihilistic libertarianism) has no convincing solutions to the biggest problems facing the country."

Well, that's interesting, but it doesn't account for the so-called "risk" Ezra alludes to. If you've got the solutions, then you should just go for it -- no risk, right? But in fact, simply implementing policy runs the risk that the public will turn to Republicans. What "problem," then, would that make Republicans the solution to? Liberalism?

Notwithstanding Republican hypocrisy and a lot of things labeled as conservatism which really are not, I never actually worry that people might throw out true conservative policy. In fact, the more conservatism that's implemented, the more secure I expect conservatives to become in office.

Do you not have the same faith in your platform?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | June 30, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

"I'm here to tell you," he said to Jon Stewart, "that the worm will turn again and my party will lose. Just you wait."

Wow. The only smart thing Kristol has ever said, and happily he was right!

Posted by: TWAndrews | June 30, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

That's it? Crickets???

C'mon, Ezra -- it's hard to imagine you with nothing to say. What's with the premise?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | June 30, 2009 9:46 PM | Report abuse

Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces:

I don't get your "anti-Tom" angle, but I certainly applaud the sentiment expressed in the ID!

Posted by: INTJ | July 1, 2009 1:13 AM | Report abuse

"it's hard to imagine you with nothing to say."

But easy to imagine you, Galtroid, with lots to say and nothing worth saying.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | July 1, 2009 5:24 AM | Report abuse

I find it hard to imagine too many bills where there will be 60 D votes and 40 R votes.

Anything even slightly contentious will lead Lieberman, Specter, or one of the "Blue Dogs" to side with the GOP. Anything non-contentious, and thus likely meaningless, will probably gain a handful of R votes.

I think we'll find that a 60-40 party line vote will be quite rare indeed.

Posted by: nylund | July 1, 2009 7:29 AM | Report abuse

My biggest fear is that we'll still have Democrats claiming that we need to water down important bills in order to gain the "bi-partisan" votes required for passage.

I'm looking at you Sen. Nelson.

Posted by: nylund | July 1, 2009 7:32 AM | Report abuse

pseudonymousinnc, instead of throwing rocks maybe you'd like to take a shot at explaining why retaining a liberal majority and implementing a liberal agenda are conflicting goals?

If you could answer that, I suppose that would make you "better than Ezra."

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | July 1, 2009 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps you'd like to consider that you're offering up a simplistic rephrasing of the question based upon false premises?

Oh, no, you wouldn't. Because that's the only reason you come here.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | July 1, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

pseudonymousinnc,

I don't know. It sure looked to me like Ezra thinks they're conflicting goals. Seems like he thinks you have to choose one or the other -- and you have to choose carefully, too, apparently.

Are you saying Ezra said something different...?

You're invited to point out the false premise of my question if you think you see one.

It's not very constructive when you claim there's a false premise but you don't actually enumerate it, is it?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | July 1, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

False premise: "retaining a liberal majority".

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | July 2, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

False premise?
"As such, there are two ways to think about a 60-vote majority. One way is in terms of how long you can keep it. The other is in terms of how much you can achieve with it."

Keeping the seats conflicts with implementing a liberal agenda. If you want to argue that a Democrat majority is not a liberal majority it wouldn't matter. What needs to be explained is not whether Dem seats are liberal, but why liberalism is a threat to the seats.

More specifically, how is it that there's a whole movement pushing government that it already knows voters don't actually want? You really see nothing bizarre in that? Because I gotta tell you, it's a source of endless amusement to me.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | July 4, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

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