We live in very strange times. The deep dysfunction that has gripped our political system for the past several years has not disappeared. If anything, it is even more pronounced in the House of Representatives and in many states. But at the same time, there are prospects, serious prospects, for major advances in a number of key policy areas that have stubbornly eluded commonsense solutions or breakthroughs. President Barack Obama has the usual challenges that face any second-term, lame-duck president, ones that make serious new policy advances unlikely — and with the additional hurdle of vicious, tribal politics — but there are serious possibilities that he could have a strikingly successful second term.
The latest sign of green shoots is, of course, the immigration reform plan laid out earlier this week by the “gang of eight,” an impressive group of senators including Democrats Charles E. Schumer of New York, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida. This is a group that truly spans the ideological spectrum with a plan that includes a series of exquisitely balanced compromises and offers serious hope of movement in the Senate, at least, within a matter of months. Durbin, who was in the middle of the gang of six that brokered a reasonable and courageous plan on deficit reduction, has become a go-to guy to find common ground. Schumer, who was in the middle of the filibuster reform negotiations, is also a key to compromise. McCain was, for many years, the avatar of bipartisan proposals on important and controversial issues from climate change to political reform — if this is a sign of his return to that pivotal role, it is great news. And Graham, up for re-election in South Carolina, has once again shown his courage in the face of immense, career-threatening political pressure.
At the same time, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., another senator who looks to solve problems and not just score partisan points or dig in with uncompromising ideological positions, is trying to find a broad consensus on a gun check plan that could be the centerpiece of some overhaul of gun laws. Immigration and guns are issues that looked six months ago as if they would be impossible to reform, but now it is plausible to imagine both moving forward.
The turnaround on these issues has occurred because of events. For immigration, it was the stunning and unexpected beating Republicans took at the polls: losing the presidency after expecting a comfortable win, losing two seats in the Senate after thinking a GOP majority was a real possibility. The losses opened up Republican eyes to their demographic deficits. For guns, of course, it was the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.