". . .in the wake of Barack Obama’s election the main reason to be hopeful about the prospects for universal health care wasn’t so much the election of a new progressive president as the fact that Max Baucus, one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus and also Chairman of the Finance Committee, had essentially adopted the main outline of Hillary Clinton’s universal health care plan.
One natural question to wonder is what happened to this? Does Baucus still think those were good ideas? If he does, I would be eager to see him write them up as legislation and see what kind of support they can garner. Maybe 60 votes aren’t there. But I’d like to see. Nobody can accuse Baucus of being a wild-eyed liberal or a member of the “left of the left.” It seems to me that we’re stuck in a dysfunctional dynamic where you have a powerful centrist senator lay some ideas out (including, for example, a public option), which leads progressives to embrace them as a realistic path to reform, which leads the centrist ideas to be rebranded as left-wing ideas which, in turn, leads to the ideas being abandoned by centrists. Very hard to accomplish anything that way."
There was a lot of speculation after the 2006 Congressional elections gave Democrats control of Congress, whether a political realignment was underway. Earlier, Karl Rove, rather famously, had speculated on whether a realignment akin to that accomplished by McKinley's 1896 election, and the split between the Populists and the Gold Democrats, which ushered in Republican dominance that lasted until 1930, might be accomplished in 2004. If you like the 36-year cycle theory of American politics, then 2004 would have been the year of expected realignment (1788-Founding, 1824-Jackson Democrats, 1860-Lincoln, 1896-Republicans, 1932-FDR, 1968-Nixon); of course, this leaves out 1800-Jeffersonian Republicans; 1828-the year of Jackson's actual election; 1876-the "election" of Rutherford B. Hayes by Election Commission and the End of Reconstruction; 1912-Woodrow Wilson wins, due to the Bull Moose split; 1964-LBJ landslide enacts Civil Rights legislation and War on Poverty, initiates Liberal Social Revolution.
Every election matters, but the search for political realignments also matters. Realignment marks a shift in the composition and habits of the governing coalition, as much or more than the composition of partisan political Party identification, per se.
In 2006 and 2008, propelled by repulsion as much as anything, a small slice of the electorate, and of the political elite, moved from strong identification with, and loyalty to, the Republicans to openness to supporting and working with a moderate Democrat. Partly, it was nostalgia for Clinton, which only a moron like Bush could engender, and partly it was the deft way Barack Obama positioned himself, using every asset of personality and personal identity.
This small slice of moderate/conservatives changed partisan identification and voting habit, but not personal philosophy. The country did not become more liberal. Liberals did not increase in number, although they may have gained a bit of credibility with youth.
"Bi-partisanship" has been the dominant pattern of assembling governing coalitions since WWII. FDR built up the internationalist wing of the Republican Party, under Tom Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller, to oppose the old Main Street reactionary conservatives, under the Taft dynasty. The extreme Right of the Republican Party was excluded from Power, by this form of bipartisanship, which featured moderate Democrats reaching out to moderate Republicans to form "consensus compromises" that just happened to coincide with the needs of the Center.
Gradually, "bi-partisan" shifted under Nixon, who, though personally popular, still led a Party incapable of achieving Congressional majorities. Nixon's particular personal gifts, allowed him to establish "triangulation" as a propaganda tactic, aimed at spliting the moderate from the Democrats within the Democratic Party. Reagan continued the pattern. Conventional and mainstream Republicans continue to dominate their own Party, and to take the lead into forming compromises with, and governing with, the Democrats in Congress.
Things shifted a bit with the Gingrich Revolution and a House majority for the Republicans. A far more extreme brand of reactionary conservative arose, and insisted on dominance within the Republican coalition, and a "take no prisoners" attitude toward the Democrats.
Many Americans still "expect" cooperation between the Parties, a cooperation of good will and common loyalty to the country, which never really existed. But, it simply is not possible.
To govern the Democrats have to form a coalition almost entirely within their own Party.
It's a new pattern, for forming a governing coalition. It remains to be seen how, or if, it will work.
Health care is proving to be an interesting test case, precisely for the reasons the astute Yglesias notes: as long as the centrists have no real principles, and define themselves in contradistinction to the liberals, it will be very hard for centrists and liberals to agree on governance.