If your impression of the state of American governance varies with the pitch of partisan political rhetoric or the tone of Fox News alerts, then this is a depressing time. President Obama's critics are as dialed up and nasty as at any time during his presidency. They place him at the center of a closed loop of scandals and conspiracy theories, beginning at Benghazi and ending at Benghazi, each increment of which is connected to the next by the suggestion that Obama has manipulated developments in one to distract attention from the other. This blue plate special comes with heaping side dishes of legislative gridlock and outrage over Obama's related reliance upon his administrative powers to advance his priorities. Liberals are angry that Republicans have stalled progress, while conservatives lament the existence of any progress at all. It's a big mess.
But if you look at today's status quo from the perspective of, say, July 2011 or October 2013, you'll begin to appreciate it as a moment of relative calm. Our government isn't teetering on the brink of default. It isn't shut down, either, or about to be. The right's overheated obsession with repealing the Affordable Care Act has dwindled. And as eager as some movement foot soldiers might be to impeach Obama (and as ineffective as GOP leaders have been at bottling up the conservative Id) it's very hard to imagine House Republicans actually doing it.
Last week, Josh Marshall looked at these same basic phenomena and dubbed them symptoms of a "long truce," which the parties only reached after the ACA definitively stabilized.
"However you choose to describe it, both sides of the partisan divide are operating in their own political universe[s], on their own political turfs," he wrote. "And the most striking thing is that both seem content to keep it that way."
I think that's basically right. But I also think it represents more than just mutually acceptable expressions of exhaustion. We've reached the base-state of American politics—the best we can hope for in absence of extraordinary, and extraordinarily rare political events. A long truce sounds great. But it's actually incredibly depressing.
Things could obviously get worse, or completely break down again, like they did in 2011. Republicans might succumb unexpectedly to the temptations of impeachment. We could face, and be unable to cope with, another economic shock. An unfathomable catastrophe could strike. A real, major scandal could ensnare either political party.
But it's hard to imagine things getting much better than this.
Because 2009 and 2010 were years of great upheaval and political drama, set against a backdrop of economic crisis and massive GOP resistance, they felt just as agitating as the noisy, relatively inconsequential political moment we're experiencing right now. But they were immensely productive. It's unlikely that we'll see a political arrangement like that, where one party controls every branch, and enjoys large governing majorities, for a long time to come. In between we can look forward to either divided governments or governments that are unified, but institutionally incapable of addressing what they see as the nation's top priorities.
The parties are too polarized and beset by mutual incomprehension to govern in coalition, except at rare moments when coalitions are required to avoid acute crises. They don't even ultimately agree on what the nation's top priorities really are. This fully explains the halting progress of the past couple years. What little Obama has been able to get done statute, he's plied through the legislative process. What he hasn't, he's at least attempted to advance through the Senate. Some of those items (immigration reform, employment non-discrimination for LGBT people) have passed and died in the House. Others (background checks, minimum wage) have fallen to Republican filibusters. Where he can act alone, he has or will. In either event the upshot is that members of his electoral coalition can clearly identify the source of gridlock. Having finally accepted the fact that controlling one House of Congress doesn't entitle them to impose their agenda on the country, Republicans have satisfied themselves with blocking legislative progress and deploying the politics of scandal to publicly discredit Obama as badly as possible.
If Democrats lose the Senate, this phase of the detente will change. Republicans will either yield to 2011-style impulses again, and provoke a series of dangerous confrontations, or they'll content themselves with running the Democrats' current play, in reverse. Passing what legislation they can, expecting a veto. Letting Senate Democrats filibuster farther-fetched priorities. Continuing to propound various scandals and conspiracy theories.
Absent an exogenous shock of some kind, 2017 doesn't look much better either. Democrats will have tremendous systemic advantages in the battle for Senate control in 2016, Republicans will enjoy different advantages in their fight to keep the House. Either way, the next president is unlikely to enter office with much influence over the national agenda, and the out party will undertake to diminish that influence immediately via obstruction and separate base-mobilization strategies.
This is altogether preferable to the turmoil of Obama's middle years. But it's also tedious, sad, and incredibly wasteful.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.