10/18/2010 11:33 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Effectiveness Gap

We'll know soon enough how consequential the so-called enthusiasm gap is for the 2010 elections; it doesn't look good for the Democrats. Neither does the effectiveness gap, and it is far more consequential.

I would care more about the enthusiasm gap if it weren't so richly deserved. But I persist in thinking that Democrats will do better than many now think. The reason: Republicans. To be sure, one must never "misunderestimate" Americans' eagerness to put ignoramuses in office, though with the Tea Party biting at its heels, the Republicans' offerings this time around may have gone a step or three too far. But whether or not Democrats will still control Congress next year, the Tea Party will still wield enormous power because, when it comes to effectiveness, they have no peers. Even mainstream Republicans don't hold a candle.

The Tea Party is the Republican Party on steroids, and being effective is the one thing even the most lackluster Republican is good at. Can anyone not look back on the past two years and not admire the GOP's achievement. Their villainous obstinacy rises almost to the level of the sublime. Despite Obamamania and massive Democratic majorities, they held the Obama administration to Pyrrhic victories -- not that Obama really tried for more.

Compared even to ordinary Republicans, Democrats are pathetically ineffective. But this difference pales before the contrast between the Tea Party Caucus and its ostensible opposite number, the Progressive Caucus, some eighty-three members strong. Granted, by world standards, most of those "progressives" would find themselves in the dead center of the political spectrum. But it is not their ideology, or lack of it, that brings the Progressive Caucus up short; it is that, for getting their policies realized, they are all but useless.

Think what the Progressive Caucus might have achieved were they one-fifth as adept as the average Republican at leveraging their power. With a public riled up by war mongering media calling for revenge, they probably could not have forced the Bush administration to treat the 9/11 terror attacks as the crimes they were rather than as a pretext for launching an endless war against Afghanistan. But they could have impeded, if not blocked, the push to war with Iraq; and, by 2006, they might have been able to force the administration to wind that lost war down. They could also have done plenty to restore the rule of law. Instead, Nancy Pelosi famously took impeachment and anything else that might resemble a settling of accounts with elementary decency "off the table."

That's not the worst of it. The Progressive Caucus couldn't even force the Obama administration to retain the "public option" Obama officially supported. Much the same can be said for the rest of the administration's Wall Street-friendly financial reforms, and its prevarications on almost everything else the Democratic base supports: from real environmental legislation, to pro-union reforms, to "don't ask, don't tell.

One might almost think that the Democrats were trying to throw the game, and that their larger purpose has been to disillusion an entire generation. Eric Holder's announcement that, come what may November 2, the Obama administration will still enforce federal laws against marijuana lends support to this hypothesis; just as the administration's wobbling on a foreclosure moratorium, supported even by mainstream Democrats, suggests that when it comes to being subservient to Wall Street interests, the Obama administration knows no shame.

No doubt, many Democrats have internalized the interests of their corporate paymasters; and, no doubt, corruption runs deep. But Democrats are no more corrupt than Republicans. The problem with them is more insidious. It is that even in the rare instances when they do side with the vaunted "little guy" they claim to champion, they are singularly incapable of getting anything done.

This is why whether or not Democrats prevail in the coming elections, an enormous efficiency gap will remain. No wonder that even those of us who understand full well that Republicans are worse, much worse, cannot get very enthusiastic about the enthusiasm gap. Whoever wins, Republicans, with Tea Partiers in the lead, will still do harm while Democrats, the Progressive Caucus especially, will remain as feckless and pusillanimous as before.