For your consideration:
1. The Bush years were absolutely disastrous, on multiple fronts.
2. Those disasters were the direct result of movement conservative ideology, and horrible mismanagement by the Bush administration and the GOP.
3. The majority of the American public rejected the Bush/GOP approach in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
4. The Republicans looked at all of the above, and said: "Let's propose the same policies as Bush."
They added, "Let's obstruct all legislation and presidential appointments, and all attempts to clean up the messes left by Bush and our party."
(The conservative base looked at all of the above, and said, "Bush and the Republicans weren't far right enough.")
5. The American media looked at all of the above, and said: "Obama and the Democrats should adopt the Republicans' policies."
They added, "That would be bipartisan. And America is a center-right nation. When voters said they wanted change, that meant they wanted the Bush approach. They didn't want the Republicans to change their policies or their level of cooperation."
Furthermore: "The million teabaggers gathering on the National Mall to call Obama a fascist, socialist baby-killer who will institute death panels to kill white grandmas have a point."
I could have kept #4 and #5 simpler, but I think this list covers most of the current dynamics. As the saying goes, insanity is trying the same approach over and over again expecting different results. The largest problem in American politics is the failure, or refusal, to acknowledge that the Bush years were horrible (#1) and that this was not accidental (#2). It's struck me that almost everything else flows from these factors – basically, the denial of a glaringly obvious reality. There are multiple theories for this. There's D.C. being wired for Republican rule. There's the Beltway gang's love of "he said-she said" reporting and disdain for discussing actual policies and their probable consequences (who will benefit). There's their isolation from the negative effects of the Bush years, and the simple truth that a ruling class is disinclined to question an establishment that favors them. Still, the biggest reason may be culpability. Bush and the GOP caused most of the damage. The more corporatist Democrats were happy to join in. The media largely said nothing, or acted as cheerleaders, or even as gleeful bullies themselves.
Some journalists and politicians will sorta admit to #1, but not #2 - thus, on economic matters, lately we've been hearing, "It doesn't matter who made the mess - the important thing is that it gets fixed." It's a neat partisan trick, but why the press plays along is another matter. Bush and the GOP nearly doubled the national debt from 5.73 trillion to 10.7 trillion, with 1.8 trillion in tax cuts (overwhelmingly to the rich) and pushed two wars without end – and in the Beltway, it just doesn't matter. Blue Dogs like Evan Bayh can have their Come-to-Ayn-Rand moments, and suddenly discover they're deficit hawks – except when it comes to military spending, which should be unlimited. (On other issues, like torture, the Village position is also that it was no one's fault, but that nothing should be fixed.) While it's fair to judge Obama on how he puts out the fire, it's colossally irresponsible to ignore who set the fire – especially when the same people in Congress and business and on the op-ed pages are trying to set more fires. This dynamic may be most maddening in politicians' reluctance to take on Wall Street, even after Wall Street players tanked the global economy and have shown staggering arrogance since – and eagerness to do it all over again. The Republicans aren't alone in sucking-up on that front, although they are the most shameless and reckless.
Some of this is nothing new. Conservative think tanks have been trying to sell a crucial pair of lies for decades now – that Reaganomics have been great for America, and that the New Deal was somehow a failure. (Even John Yoo's latest groundwork-for-a-torture-defense op-ed attacks the New Deal in passing.) Curiously, for this crowd, cutting social spending and giving more money to the rich are always the magic solutions to every single problem America faces (even though it's never worked out as sold). Meanwhile, there's a direct line from Watergate through Iran-Contra to the abuses of the Bush administration, with many of the same players (and their allies) involved. The Cheney gang felt the real mistake of Watergate was getting caught. Then-Congressman Cheney zealously defended the Reagan administration's abuses of power in Iran-Contra, and the perpetrators were barely punished. Shockingly, when men and women abuse power and aren't held accountable, the consciences they never possessed before do not magically sprout into existence. Strangely, when such abuses and bad policies go unchallenged, they tend to show up again.
As antiquated as the Senate and its rules are, it couldn't do as much harm if the GOP, and the Blue Dogs, and the media, responded to #1 and #2 with honesty, humility and responsibility. However, adopting a responsible, reality-based approach would depend on the culprits forsaking a sliver of personal gain, and might necessitate that they confront their own flattering, delusional self-images. The Conventional Beltway Wisdom is generally wrong - and often inane - but the political class will always believe in self-gratification. Unfortunately, the chances are not high that Paul Ryan will admit his policies will benefit the rich and devastate the middle class, that Jim Demint, Rush Limbaugh or Joe Lieberman will stop being assholes, that the teabaggers will realize they're fighting for the same people who have screwed them for thirty plus years, or that "centrist" David Broder will stop to take a whiff of reality rather than writing his latest Mad Libs column concluding that Democrats should let Republicans call the shots.
If there's a single story that exemplifies (American) politics, it's the Emperor's New Clothes. The only questions are who's the emperor, who are the crooked tailors, who are the public dupes who play along, and who are the truth tellers. No one likes to think he or she is a dupe, but the entire Villager mindset is built upon the painfully false, self-flattering notion that they're the wise, cynical, insightful ones. There's a grain of truth to this, because like members of the Bush administration, they create their own reality, and their inane, counterfactual analysis can become self-fulfilling. But in another sense, even as their games screw over most of the American citizenry, the Villagers are both the grifters and the marks for their own bullshit.
None of this means progress is hopeless, but any strategy that doesn't acknowledge (on some level) points #1-5 is likely to fail. The Democrats want to listen to all ideas? Fine – but they have to acknowledge privately that most of those opposition ideas stink, even if they don't call out every single one of them publicly. They want to keep a civil public image? Okay, that's one way to play it - but they have to acknowledge to themselves privately that the Republicans are obstructionists, and not working in good faith. Many conservatives have openly sought the destruction and failure of the Democratic Party. FDR was denounced as a "traitor to his class" in his day, and gave a great speech where he named his foes and 'welcomed their hatred.' A national political discourse with one party attacking false scapegoats and the other too gutless or corrupt to call out real villainy is simply toxic. The Democrats want to treat TV gasbags respectfully? Fine, that's only smart – but they have to go into those interactions knowing how vapid and superficial most of the chattering class is, and calculate accordingly. The Emperor has no clothes. In the short run, it might be wise to account for the Beltway's love of hippie-punching with some planned concessions, but the long game just can't be won using rules that say you – and the American people as a whole – must always lose.
(A companion piece of sorts is here. This post edited slightly for clarity.)