As news started building this morning that Norm Coleman would be conceding and that Al Franken would finally be seated as Minnesota's second Senator, I was overwhelmed with happiness. I know there's a lot else going on in the world, with the SCOTUS, with Afghanistan, and he myriad sex scandals that will always serve to distract people, but with this news, and Arlen Specter's recent refusal of the Republicans, if not the right wing in general, we would finally have our oh-so-coveted 60. The legendary filibuster-proof number. The number that so many Republicans refer to in their fear-mongering campaigns. The number that would allow us to do great things.
There's something wrong with the picture. To imagine that obtaining the (not-so anymore) mythical number of 60 left-leaning Senators in the Senate would enable us to do whatever we want is foolhardy at best and downright naive at least. To imagine such a thing would require from us an effort that Democrats have almost never exhibited: we would need to build a coalition, a single organization with one mind and one will, focused on pushing through certain legislation.
The simple fact is that this will never happen.
Whereas Republicans have settled on their message (or at least they had, until major news organizations declared their party dead, and the survivors starting battling for the crown) and moved forward with that message with a Borg-like certainty, Democrats have never had that laser-like precision. There are too many disparate factions within the larger tent pole of quote-unquote Democrats. This is actually kind of a point of pride for many left-leaners and something I tend to agree with them on: we shouldn't need (or even want) a hive-mind when our party is supposed to be about the individual and celebrating diversity and tolerating all kinds of differences.
However, when it comes to the dirty business of politics, sometimes that kind of group think is not only advantageous, but every once in a while, it can be seen as necessary. And even when it's not necessary, there's a reason we have sides. If the pitcher for the Pirates suddenly started playing for whatever team they were playing against, it would be very hard for the Pirates to win any games. (Granted, the pitcher is super important in baseball and there's no one person in the House of Reps or the Senate who has that much power, but the analogy can be [hopefully obviously] extended to any player, in any position, on any team.) Even the least important member of your team can be incredibly damning to the end results if he or she starts playing for the other team. (Plus, to further the sports analogy, this dependence on 60 relies on Joe Lieberman, who has a less than stellar record when it comes to supporting the Democrats. He's a bad team player.)
For some perspective, let's look at the recently celebrated passage of H.R. 2454 (also known as ACES) through the House of Representatives. While Democrats control about 59% of the House, with 255 members in total, Republicans have a mere 178 members, for 41% control. Based on those numbers, the total number of Reps is 433, which means if every member votes on any given bill, a simple majority can be had with 217 votes. Since the Republicans have only 178 Reps, that means if they hope to affect any vote, they have to peel off a minimum of 39 Democrats. With such an overwhelming majority, we'd be expected to lose a grand total of zero votes, right? Well, let's take a look at the breakdown for ACES. Disgustingly, 44 Democrats voted against the bill! Since the Republicans only need to peel 39, they would have won this vote, had we not peeled 8 from their side, for a slim margin of victory of 219-212, with three voters not present. (Just as a sidenote, I'd be very interested in finding out where Jeff Flake, Alcee Hastings and John Sullivan were on the day of this vote. Were they there and abstained? Were they elsewhere? I hope their constituents know. It's also worth noting that amongst those three, two are Republicans and one is a Democrat. This vote could have been even closer.) Given the fact that we control more of the territory of the House than do the Republicans, it can be expected that more of us would defect than would they. (Just like, since there's more white people in the United States, we would expect more of them to be in jail than any other ethnic grouping. Except that's not true as well.) However, more than five times as many Democrats voted against their side than did the Republicans.
For this reason, and many more, I am not hopeful about the status of ACES when it gets to the Senate. If you are interested in getting this bill passed when it gets there, I'd urge you to follow Al Gore's Twitter account or do a good job monitoring Thomas.gov which is a great resource. Write not just an email but a snail mail letter to your Senator when it gets time to vote. If you live in Minnesota, this is tremendously important, as Mr. Franken certainly has a lot of ground to make up. (Not that his delay is, in any way, his own fault.)
If there's more interest in finding out the specifics of ACES, we can get into that, but I figure you're all way more than capable Googlers at this point in the 21st century.
The important thing to remember is that we have the numbers to push through important legislation, and we're not going to have these numbers forever! It would be a fool's errand to waste the opportunities we have, when we know that they didn't in the past and they won't in the future. They are an organized front, they move with precision in the direction they want to go, and we must be unafraid to match them.