At least in some precincts, the mood in Washington is one of frustration and pessimism. This is captured by a good Brian Beutler column today in which he proclaims that gridlock is the best anyone can hope for in the foreseeable future. The only plausible alternative is some form of Tea Party nihilistic cataclysm such as impeaching the president or shutting down the government. I just spent a week in Washington, and I heard plenty of this kind of sentiment.

Perhaps that’s right. In part, I suspect this mood is a bit of a hangover from an unusually eventful era of U.S. politics (Ezra Klein and Nate Silver have written about this): We’ve gone from impeachment to a historically contested election to terror attacks and war in Afghanistan to war in Iraq. Then, just when at least the Iraq War was winding down, there was a huge recession, another landmark election, and the historic 111th Congress, one of the most productive. This churn of activity makes the normal (excruciatingly slow) grind of policy-making seem even worse than it otherwise might.

But there’s also a lot of unwarranted fatalism. Take divided government. Beutler predicts that “it’s unlikely that we’ll see a political arrangement like [2009-2010], where one party controls every branch, and enjoys large governing majorities, for a long time to come.”

In fact, however, it’s possible either party could enjoy unified government after the 2016 election. Both parties have solid shots at the White House; no, there is no Democratic lock. The Senate, too, is about as wide open as it could be. Yes, Democrats have plenty of good targets in 2016, just as Republicans do this year. Add it up, and there’s just no way of guessing where things will stand in January 2017… but that means the Senate is more likely than not to wind up aligning with the presidency. That leaves the House, where Republicans are solidly favored to retain their majority. That means that a good Republican year in 2016 has a fairly good chance of yielding Republican unified government. But talk of a Republican lock in the House is overstated; a good Democratic year could easily flip that chamber, and therefore produce unified Democratic government.

I agree that unified government with a Senate supermajority is less likely, but that’s only to say that the extraordinary productivity of the 111th Congress is unlikely to recur. It doesn’t imply that a normal, functioning Congress couldn’t emerge.

Moreover, it’s hardly a sure thing that divided government will remain at current levels of dysfunction. Yes, partisan polarization makes compromise more difficult, and yes, I’m the first to say that there’s something really wrong with the Republican Party that makes governing especially problematic. But ideological gaps have been bridged in the past. And as for the Republicans, I’m a pessimist, but not an absolute one. I can imagine multiple scenarios in which Republicans resume doing policy and accepting compromise to achieve their priorities.

And in the meantime, it’s not as if nothing is happening. The climate fight is important and substantive, even if it’s happening at the regulatory level and not in the legislative arena. It isn’t, and won’t be, the only policy-making taking place in executive branch agencies and departments. Or, for that matter, in the courts, where plenty of important policy formation continues.

None of which gets us to ultimate victory or defeat for anyone, or even within any policy area. But that’s not the special result of a particular set of contemporary dysfunctions; nor is it a new normal. It is, in fact, the always normal in the U.S. Madisonian system. No ultimate victories or defeats happened even during the New Deal or Great Society, and certainly not in the Ronald Reagan (or Newt Gingrich or Tea Party) eras. And that is as it should be, for the most part. Sure, it’s frustrating to move incrementally. It’s devastating, however, to lose completely and utterly, without hope of reprieve. The Madisonian idea is that the necessary price of democracy is that we have to accept the frustration in order to avoid the devastation, even when it seems to us (but not to others!) that the demands of justice and rationalism are painfully obvious and urgent.

So, yes, there’s an understandable frustration with a period of slower change, but it’s a mistake to extrapolate that to any certainty about the longer term. And as far as elections are concerned, my only prediction is that those who insist on “locks” in the House, Senate or White House are probably going to wind up looking foolish.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.