The ancient Israeli high court made it a practice, Justice Antonin Scalia notes, to invalidate death penalties if they were pronounced unanimously — on the assumption that something must be wrong. The same rule of thumb should apply to the unanimous pontifications of the political class, which now insists as one that "the system is broken."
This line had been gaining traction even prior to the retirement of Sen. Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat who joined the Broken Brigades by saying as he quit that "Congress is not operating as it should."
Everyone agrees — a surefire sign that something is amiss.
Consider the recent record. In the fall of 2008, the U.S. financial system stood on the verge of collapse. Then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson went to Congress with a $700 billion bailout package that was politically unpopular, ideologically uncongenial to both sides and sadly necessary.
It passed on strong bipartisan votes. Although the package was poorly conceived and quickly abused by the executive branch, it served its purpose. When President Barack Obama says he saved us from another Great Depression, what he means is that Congress passed a rescue months before he took office. If Congress did nothing else for the next four years, this would be a redeeming accomplishment.
But it did much more, for better or (almost certainly) worse. Within four weeks of Obama taking office, it passed a sprawling $787 billion stimulus bill. It followed up with a massive omnibus appropriations bill increasing spending by 8 percent. It passed an expansion of SCHIP, costing another $35 billion. It killed the F-22 fighter program.
"If we stopped today," Obama bragged in October, "this legislative session would have been one of the most productive in a generation." Just a few months ago, liberal pundits like Jacob Weisberg ("Obama's Brilliant First Year") and Robert Shrum ("For Obama, Success Is at Hand") were marveling at governance in the Age of Obama.
All these assessments were made against the backdrop of health-care reform's presumed inevitability. Once it faltered, James Madison's handiwork supposedly collapsed in a pitiful heap.
Of course, the Madisonian system is explicitly meant to frustrate an inflamed legislative majority bent on passing sweeping social legislation for which there's limited popular support. It's not that nothing can get done in Washington; it's that Obama wouldn't settle for what could get done. He turned his back on the best template for liberal action on health care through the years: salami-slice steps toward ever more government.
We've heard how it takes 60 votes to get anything done in the Senate. But prior to Scott Brown, Obama had 60 votes. He couldn't forge a consensus within his own party because he never convinced his base to settle for anything less than the outer edge of the possible. And here the example of Evan Bayh is telling.
A former leader of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Bayh cravenly submitted to the left. The former hawk opposed the Iraq surge, and the reputed fiscal conservative took party-line votes in favor of the stimulus and ObamaCare. If he thought he'd be rewarded with national office, he was bitterly disappointed; if he thought the center of his party would survive if no one besides Joe Lieberman fought for it, he was sorely mistaken.
Obama wouldn't tame the impatient left because he's part of it. After he won in 1964, Lyndon Johnson told his aides he'd won by 16 million votes and would lose a million votes' worth of support every month, so he had to act fast.
Obama made the same calculation, but on behalf of an agenda that wasn't popular. If people had been persuaded of its merits, Obama could have made Republicans pay the price for obstruction. "Public sentiment is everything," Abraham Lincoln said. "With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed."
If Obama tries to govern from the center, he'll find the system magically restored to health. Otherwise, it will look more miserably broken by the day.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.