Democrats are poised for big wins in Congress. So why the doom and gloom?

Biden is on his way to achieving a legislative record beyond Obama’s and Clinton’s wildest dreams

Opponents of the filibuster rally outside the Supreme Court in June. Anger at the GOP has blinded Democrats to the reality that Congress is on the cusp of approving unprecedented spending to rebuild America, Shapiro writes.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Opponents of the filibuster rally outside the Supreme Court in June. Anger at the GOP has blinded Democrats to the reality that Congress is on the cusp of approving unprecedented spending to rebuild America, Shapiro writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 27, 2021 at 6:00am

In 1963, with John F. Kennedy in the White House, political scientist James MacGregor Burns published “The Deadlock of Democracy,” a learned lament about cdongressional obstinance and dysfunction. 

“We are mired in governmental deadlock,” Burns wrote, “as Congress blocks and kills … most of Mr. Kennedy’s bold proposals of 1960. Soon we will be caught in the politics of drift.”

The crux of Burns’ argument was that only about 125 House seats were competitive — and they were mostly in major metropolitan areas. The result: Under the seniority system, the House was controlled by rural reactionary legislators from safe districts who scorned major governmental spending programs. 

Much of “The Deadlock of Democracy” was shrewd and historically grounded. But nearly a half-century later, the lasting irony is that the book came out on the eve of the most fruitful legislative era since the New Deal. 

By the end of 1965, Congress, at the high-water mark of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, had passed two major civil rights laws, established Medicare, approved federal aid to education and launched the War on Poverty.

If that’s deadlock, let’s have more of it. 

What gives this half-forgotten book by an eminent political scientist contemporary relevance is that it serves as a reminder of how quickly the political mood can shift as the seeming impossible becomes achievable. 

Democrats these days are the party of melancholy. 

Joe Biden’s record $1.9 trillion recovery package has been filed away as a routine matter, on par with funding for the Commerce Department. Anger at the slow-moving Republican efforts to forge a compromise on infrastructure has blinded Democrats to the reality that Congress is poised to approve unprecedented spending to rebuild and reshape America. 

And we are still only halfway through the first year of the Biden presidency. 

Instead of any sense of triumphalism, Democrats are mired in the gloomy certainty that they can never surmount the filibuster, gerrymandering, voter suppression and Republican nihilism. 

In a sense, we have been down this road before. 

In 1965 — with LBJ blessed with lopsided congressional majorities because of his 1964 landslide — Richard Bolling, a ninth-term Democratic congressman from Kansas City, published an acerbic book called “House Out of Order.”

Bolling, a Sam Rayburn protégé who later chaired the House Rules Committee, was a sworn enemy of the seniority system and the mediocrities who had risen to congressional power because of it. 

But Bolling also displayed his impatience with some of his erstwhile allies. As he put it, “One species of House liberal is totalitarian in temperament. … He sees the liberal program as a holy tablet to which all liberals must give unswerving allegiance — or else risk being read out of the liberal ranks.”

Substitute the word “progressive” for “liberal,” and this sounds like a prescient portrait of current discussions of a Green New Deal and “Medicare for All” at Democratic gatherings. 

Bold dreams are laudable in politics. But so is a sense of realism when the Democrats are trying to navigate a 50-50 Senate and a fingers-of-one-hand House majority. 

Of course, the unwarranted pessimism of leading liberal figures in the 1960s doesn’t guarantee a bright future for 2021 Democrats or their governing ambitions. But sometimes the heat of the moment obscures emerging trend lines. 

What made Johnson’s Great Society possible was the 1964 decision by Republican zealots to nominate Barry Goldwater for president. Winning a stunning 61 percent of the vote against the ultra-conservative Republican, LBJ helped forge 2-to-1 Democratic margins in both chambers of Congress.

With majorities like that, the seniority system and troglodyte committee chairmen didn’t stand a chance. 

These days, congressional Republicans, especially in the House, believe that it is smart politics to become the party of Trumpian fanaticism. 

If the former president, exiled to his golf resorts, believes that the 2020 election was mysteriously stolen, then Republicans must publicly embrace every sore-loser, nutcase conspiracy. 

If the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol is now conveniently remembered in GOP circles as a fun-loving tourist escapade, then Kevin McCarthy feels empowered to try to scuttle a serious House investigation. 

But what if these cynical calculations are wrong? What if there is a breaking point for loyal Republican voters who have maintained a connection to reality and remember the civics book lessons of their youth?

In recent days, we have seen a growing public recognition by some leading Republicans that they have gone too far with their wink-and-nod tolerance of anti-vaccine extremism. With the delta variant roaring through under-vaccinated red states, there is a belated realization that some things in life are more important than demonizing Anthony Fauci.

It is far too soon to predict the 2022 elections, let alone the direction of the country in 2024. But sooner or later, American politics will move away from the rough deadlock between the two parties that has been the norm since the knotted 2000 election. 

As the experience of the 1960s reminds us, politics is rarely static. On Capitol Hill, structural obstacles to legislating, like unchallenged seniority and all-powerful committee chairmen, eventually gave way under continual pressure for reform. 

That’s why it is almost certain that the filibuster, in its current form, is doomed. The timetable for the obituary is uncertain, but it is hard to believe that it will still be part of a Senate minority leader’s arsenal in 2025.

But what is also predictable is that we often fail to see the obvious. As Democrats rail against the deadlock of democracy, Biden is on his way to achieving a legislative record beyond the wildest dreams of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.