In 1939, Joseph Kennedy, then serving as U.S. ambassador to Britain, petitioned President Franklin D. Roosevelt to restrict foreign screenings of Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the grounds that the film was "an indictment of our government" that "will cause our allies to view us in an unfavorable light." Capra's depiction of a Washington dominated by special interests and toadying political hacks also angered Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley, a Democrat from Kentucky, who complained that the movie presented a "grotesque distortion" of Washington politics that suggested that the Senate was nothing more than an "aggregation of nincompoops."
So not much has changed in the last 70 years.
These days, mind you, there's no need for a latterday Capra to come to Washington -- not when the Senate's tragicomedy is broadcast to the world daily by CNN and the Internet. International observers of Washington politics gaze with wonder at a system that produces so much drama from so little legislation and a republic in which even winning a contest by a landslide can't guarantee success. American elections used to have consequences. Now, they merely determine which party the public wants to hate next.
That's one explanation for the present sorry state of affairs, in which the party occupying the White House and controlling both houses of Congress cannot figure out how to pass a health-care bill that has been the progressive Holy Grail since the time of Harry Truman. Of course, the other obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the Democratic Party simply isn't very good at politics.
If it's too easy to pass legislation in many countries (including Britain), it seems too difficult to get anything done in Washington, with the 60-vote hurdle now the rule rather than the exception. Excepting the Democrats' rare, tenuous, and wasted supermajority, power generally resides, however improbably or quixotically, with the minority party, which attempts and often succeeds in stymieing every majority initiative. Minority obstructionism, of course, can be principled. But its chief attraction is that it absolves the opposition of responsibility for anything while making the majority look, well, stupid. As former British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin once said of the press, this kind of "power without responsibility" has been "the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages." And Democratic complaints that "It's the system, stupid" aren't likely to impress too many voters -- who, rather rightfully, despise Congress no matter who runs it -- even if, by any reasonable measure, the system is dysfunctional and perverse.
So what a difference a single vote makes! The lamentations that followed Martha Coakley's stunning defeat in Massachusetts were heard on the far side of the Atlantic as well, as health care and cap-and-trade legislation disappeared with a 2 percent drift in the Senate tides. All of a sudden it seems as though "Yes We Can" actually means "Well, All Things Being Equal, We'd Like to Have a Go, but, Actually, It's Terribly Complicated and Difficult. So We Won't."