If you think back to November of 2008, Democrats won a sweeping electoral victory that left them with 59 Senate seats, a majority in the House, and control of the White House. Then thanks to Arlen Specter Democrats wound up with 60 Senate seats. Now after an impressive win by the Republicans in Massachusetts, the Democrats are back to a majority in the House, control of the White House, and 59 Senate seats. The Democratic Party continues to be more popular than the Republican Party, and the President’s approval rating continues to be over 50 percent.
Which is just to say that while losing the MA Senate seat puts certain objective constraints on what Democrats can do the most important constraints come from within. Nothing about losing an election forces you to bend to the will of the guy who won—just ask the Republicans who lost in 2006, then lost in 2008, then opposed everything Obama proposed, and are now thrilled to have 41 votes in the Senate. The option of responding to this setback with determination exists. There’s no rule preventing the House from passing the Senate health care bill. For that matter, there’s no rule preventing the reconciliation process from being used to implement a carbon tax with the revenue split between rebates, investments in clean energy, and deficit reduction. That’s not going to happen, but the reason it’s not going to happen is that Democratic members of congress don’t want to do it. They could go down in history as the people who took bold action to solve that problem, but they prefer not to.