A Brown Victory Changes Democrats' Economic Agenda

Republican challenger Scott Brown seems likely to pick up Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in Massachusetts. That would give Republicans a filbuster-enabling 41-vote minority in the Senate, and Democrats are rightly freaking out about the future of their agenda. So should the party go small and eschew big legislation. In other words: Should Obamaism descend into--gasp!--Clintonism?

Noam Scheiber asks the question in this perceptive TNR piece about what Obama should do with his social/economic agenda if the Democrats lose in Massachusetts today. This is a telling paragraph:

According to the Senate aide, the first four weeks of the chamber's legislative year--which begins on January 19--will be devoted to three initiatives: finishing up health care, hashing out a job-creation bill, and raising the government's debt limit, the last of which is like the colonoscopy of Senate votes (necessary and not that time-consuming in the grand scheme of things, but seemingly interminable while it's happening). Which means the earliest the Senate could start working on regulatory reform, the next major item in the queue, would be late winter. Unfortunately, the process of finalizing that bill could take months. That leaves cap-and-trade on its deathbed--"I can't rule it out, but it's fair to say it's losing steam," says the Senate aide--to say nothing of other initiatives like K-12 education.

Hate to say it, but I think Noam (or his source) is being too optimistic even with this pessimistic read of the Senate's near future. If Brown takes Massachusetts, the House and Senate will have to scramble to put health care reform on the president's desk before Brown is seated. Next up, you've got a job creation bill whose prospects were dimming among conservative Democrats like Bayh and Baucus even when the 60-vote majority seemed safe. Passing a messy health care bill, followed by a messy job creation bill and then raising the debt ceiling will give Republicans months of ammunition to capture and hold moderates who are getting skittish on the deficit.

The Senate has for a long time been less like an avenue to pass legislation, and more like mud pit to watch it sink. A Brown victory would effectively change the Senate's consistency from viscous to solid amber. A united Republican opposition would block anything resembling Big Liberal Agenda, and Democrats will almost have to play small to create even the illusion of a working Senate. What kind of ideas would work? A small jobs bill that leans harder on tax cuts could make it out of Congress. Or Democrats could pass something small for the environment like the "green bank" proposal, "which would use government money to help fund clean energy investments, and for requirements that utility companies generate a certain amount of renewable energy within a decade or so."

If Brown wins tonight, the commentariat will be focused on What Democrats Did Wrong. Liberals will say they didn't move fast enough, or treat 2009 like the precious window of opportunity it was. Republicans will say they moved too fast, and Massachusetts is the public pumping the breaks on an out-of-control experiment in liberal one-party rule. It doesn't really matter who's right. A 59-41 Senate with a united opposition is, unbelievably, the equivalent of a house divided against itself.