Some elections are contests between voters who are happy and voters who are not. This fall's elections are of a different sort: Since almost all the voters are unhappy with politics, the battle will be over which party gets the blame for dysfunction, inaction and disillusionment.
No one understands this better than Harry Reid. The Senate majority leader gets plenty frustrated when people claim that both parties are equally responsible for the mess in Congress. The evidence, he insists, is that the Republicans are gumming things up for their own political purposes.
"It irritates me so much when people say, 'Why don't they just work together?'" Reid says. What this overlooks, he argues, is that "the Republicans made a decision ... to oppose everything Obama wants." It's in the GOP's interest to keep things from happening because it plays into a simple narrative that Reid described this way: "Democrats control the Senate. We have a Democrat in the White House. Why can't you get things done?"
The result: "They won't let us vote on things that the vast majority of the American people want a vote on."
"It's so bad around here," Reid adds, "that they filibuster their own bills."
A politician who is not given to seeking either attention or praise from the media, the Nevada Democrat invited a group of mostly liberal commentators to his Capitol office Wednesday to challenge what he sees as nostalgic reminiscences about the Senate of old that ignore how much making the filibuster routine has made normal governing impossible. "Things are not the way they used to be around here," he says, "and I've been here for 32 years."
There are numbers to back up Reid's complaint. The use of the filibuster has soared over less than a decade. The number of cloture votes per Congress (an imperfect but illuminating measure of filibuster abuse) jumped into the triple or high double digits since the Democrats took over the Senate in 2007, compared with the high teens or low 20s in the early 1980s, and the single digits before 1970.
But there is also the political factor: Democrats, including Reid, are under no illusions about how the public feels about Washington. What the Democrats may have going for them relative to the Republicans, said a senior Democratic Senate aide, is that voters "hate them more than they hate us."
This, the polls suggest, is true. A Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month found that American voters disapprove of the job Republicans in Congress are doing by a 73 percent-18 percent margin. They disapprove of the job Democrats are doing by 63 percent-29 percent. Among independents, 74 percent disapprove of the Republicans in Congress, while 69 percent disapprove of the Democrats.
When it comes to opinion of the Republican Party overall, 52 percent of all voters have a negative view, 36 percent a positive view. For Democrats, it's 49 percent negative, 41 percent positive.
Reid wants to reinforce these numbers (and maybe help bump the Democratic numbers up a bit) by making the battle over Senate dysfunction something other than an insider's debate. The insider argument starts with the Democrats contending, as Reid did, that Republicans won't ever work with them. The Republicans immediately counter that Reid has made it difficult or impossible for the GOP to amend Democratic bills.
Reid scoffed at the Republican claim that he is "dictating what's going on in the Senate" and asserts that the real problem is that Republicans "can't agree among themselves on a list of amendments." The Republicans answer by saying, in effect: So what? If they can't get the amendments they want, they will keep insisting that they have no reason to cooperate with Democrats.
The Democratic imperative is to break out of this dreary back-and-forth over process and focus on the substance of the bills being blocked. "We need to make the case that Congress would be helping the middle class if it weren't for Republican obstruction," the Senate Democratic aide said. Reid ticked off an agenda that includes a minimum wage increase, background checks for gun buyers, equal pay for women, and campaign finance reform. He also stressed that Congress should be passing a broad transportation bill rather than just another short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund.
Exposing the other side's sabotage is not the most inspiring thing to do, but Reid figures that fighting back is better than giving in. At the least, the voters may hate you a little less.
E.J. Dionne's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.