Dana Milbank
Opinion writer October 14, 2011

Here in Washington, our leaders seem to be governing under the creed of the old Brooklyn Dodgers: Wait ’til next year.

The baseball team’s long-suffering fans consoled themselves with that phrase after each failure to win the World Series. And now lawmakers and political advisers are using it to justify their failure to do what they are supposed to be doing to fix the nation’s problems.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“We have said all along: There [are] going to be some matters left for the election,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor informed reporters at his news conference last week. Until then, he said, President Obama should work with lawmakers in “an incremental way.”

The next day, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told NBC’s Chuck Todd that “not much” is going to pass the Senate before the elections. “I think the country is in essentially an economic holding pattern,” he said.

Obama, too, has seemed willing at times to wait for the voters’ verdict, telling Cantor during budget negotiations that “I’m going to the American people with this.”

Under the wait-’til-next-year logic, Republicans believe that if they can gain control of the Senate, and maybe the White House, all their problems will be solved. Democrats, though less enthusiastic about their prospects, think that if they can make some gains in the House, and if Obama can win a second term, their agenda will have renewed momentum. And so both sides acquiesce in a standstill: a series of short-term funding bills and a supercommittee that postpones the most painful choices until after the election.

But the wait-’til-next-year approach ignores one crucial consideration: The 2012 elections, whatever the outcome, aren’t going to change the stalemate that has gripped this town.

Certainly, if Republicans won the presidency and the Senate next year, they would be in a much better position to repeal pieces of the health-care law and to undo other elements of Obama’s agenda. But undoing is very different from doing, and even under the most optimistic scenario for Republicans, Democrats would still have more than enough votes to bring the GOP agenda to a halt in the Senate.

To secure a filibuster-proof majority, Republicans would have to gain 13 Senate seats next year. Charlie Cook, the elections handicapper, predicts that they will gain three to six. If they keep all Republican seats, beat six Democratic incumbents and win the five open seats considered to be in play, they’d still come up two seats short of 13.

More likely, Republicans could knock off enough moderate Democratic senators to gain a thin majority — but they would then face a more liberal and unified Democratic minority. “Republicans have certainly shown their willingness to make the filibuster standard practice,” said one adviser to Democratic Senate leadership, “so they have set a precedent, inadvertently perhaps, for making its deployment a routine matter.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell seems to grasp this in his more candid moments. He has argued that a divided government provides “the best time, and some would argue the only time, to do really hard things, because really hard things done on a partisan basis cannot be accomplished” without creating “a wipeout in the next election.”

That’s certainly true: If Republicans were to win the White House and the Senate and then use that power to rewrite Medicare and Social Security without Democratic support, the backlash would make the Tea Party look genteel.

But just as often, McConnell gets swept up in the wait-’til-next-year logic, as when he said that defeating Obama is “the single most important thing we want to achieve.”

Similar wishes drove Paul Ryan, the House budget committee chairman, to forgo a debt compromise with Democrats in favor of a partisan plan that cuts spending without tax increases. “We need to accentuate” differences, Ryan said, “to give the country a real clear choice” in 2012.

But Americans have already made a clear choice, repeatedly: They want their representatives to compromise. In the new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 64 percent said lawmakers should attack the debt problem with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. But only 25 percent thought that lawmakers will agree on a plan.

The lack of faith that lawmakers will do the obvious, necessary things goes a long way toward explaining why Congress enjoys an approval rate of 14 percent. In this case, good things do not come to those who wait.

danamilbank@washpost.com