There is a difference, people, between seats and votes. The right understands this. The left does not. This is why 41 is greater than 59. When the time comes to actually pass legislation, it's not about the number of seats your party has- how many people have the right letter behind their name, but rather how many elected officials stand up and say "yea", even if they have a different letter after their name.
Stating it plainly and simply, like this, everyone goes "duh! Of course! Obvious!" But this fact isn't accepted by many people on the left (including a large contingent of people on this blog), and this is why the Democrats are perpetually weak and spineless- and why it is that 41 is greater than 59.
So I'm going to spell out the logic. And many people, including probably you, Reader, won't like the implications. But until we come to grips with this simple fact, and more importantly the implications of this fact, we are doomed to failure.
So, let's start with the title of this diary. Why is it, that the Republicans, with a mere 41 Senators, are so much more powerful than the Democrats are? And why weren't the Democrats, when they were in a 49-51 minority (and thus in a much stronger minority position than the Republicans are in now) no where near as effective in blocking Republican proposals? The answer is that this is counting seats, not votes. Yes, we have 59 people in the Senate with D's after their name (well, technically 57 and 2 I's which are normally counted in).
But do we have 59 votes in the Senate? Ignore, for a moment, whether that is "enough", can we get 59? On a public option? On cap and trade? On financial regulation? On DADT? Heck no. On most of these things, we'll be lucky to get 50 votes. And without 50 Senators willing to stand up and say "yea", the bill doesn't get passed. The real split in the Senate is probably much closer to 50-50, and may even have the real Democrats (those who support the public option, financial regulation, etc.) in the minority. I'm not even talking liberal here- if we had 50 liberals, we'd have single payer.
We need to stop thinking in terms of seats, and start thinking in terms of votes.
But the difference doesn't stop there. Here's a dozy, one that you're likely to reject on first glance: it's possible to increase the number of votes you have by decreasing the number of seats you have.
This works because Senators, and elected officials in general, pay attention to what happens to other elected officials, especially elected officials in the same body they're in. And punishing one elected official for defection (voting against the party- being a seat, not a vote), by forcing them out of office, makes other elected officials less likely to defect (vote against the party).
An example makes this more clear. Let's say there is a vote coming up on some issue, let's call it Health Care Reform. This it's important to you that this bill fail. But you have, let's say four Senators who are waffling. They may vote for the bill, they may vote against it. Call these Senators Specter, Snow, Collins, and Voinovich. To make the math easy, let's assume each Senator has a 50% chance of voting for or against the bill. So, your party has four seats, but how many votes does it have? Obviously, out of those four senators, you likely have only two votes- in 11 out of 16 equally likely scenarios at least two of those Senators vote for the bill.
But now you pick one of the Senators- Specter, say- and punish him for his likely defection, by eliminating him in the primary. By doing this, you are reducing the number of seats you have- either Specter will switch parties, or your guy will lose, in either case the seat will go to the other party. But in doing so, all three remaining Senators- Snow, Collins, and Voinovich- all become certain nay votes. For they know that if they don't vote nay, they too will be punished. This means you now have 3 solid nay votes, where you used to have only 2 if you're lucky.
I didn't pick these names by chance, I think this is exactly what happened. Did you happen to notice, while we here on the left were all high-fiving each other over Toomey's challenge of Specter, that basically no one on the right said anything about this? That there basically were no mea-culpas, not even any "did we screw up"s? And that, while back last spring and early summer it was often discussed that several of the more moderate Republicans, especially Snow and Collins, would likely vote for health care, that hope too died at about the same time?
The Republicans didn't screw up by kicking Specter out in the primary, even though that lost them their seat. It gained them votes.
Now, obviously there are limits to this sort of logic. A given official, no matter how motivated, can't stand up and say yea more than once. Once there is a 100% chance (or at least as high as it can go) that Snow, Collins, and Voinovich are all going to vote against the bill, ejecting another one via a primary challenge reduces both the number of seats and the number of votes.
The Republican party is united to an extent that makes the Borg nervous, because the Republican base has demonstrated repeatedly that people who do not tow the line will get punished at election time. The Democratic base, on the other hand, refuses to punish it's officials. All they have to do is say the magic words- "it's us or the Republicans", and we'll come running.
Yes, this means we will have to attack politicians who have a (D) after their names. Yes, this means that in many cases, the seat will flip, and instead of having a bad Democrat we'll have a worse Republican. This is anathema to many on this site, who would much rather have a nice party, one where everyone can feel good about themselves and no mean words are said, rather than a party that actually enacts progressive legislation.
Or at least prevents the worst reactionary legislation. Listen up, people- as much as we may not like this, another Republican president and a return of Republican control of either or both houses of Congress is inevitable. But consider this- run the Bush years back again, but imagine there were 41 Democratic votes (not just seats, votes) in the Senate, willing to stand up and say NO. NO to stupid tax cuts and stupid wars. NO to the PATRIOT ACT and No Child Left Behind. NO to being bought, bullied, or bribed, because of the sure and certain knowledge that if they didn't, they'd be looking for a new job come next election. What is working for the Republicans can work for us- if we're willing to do what is necessary to make it happen.
But, campaign rhetoric not withstanding, I don't hold out a lot of hope. Primary challenge Mary Landreiu or Ben Nelson or Bart Stupak? Heaven forbid! Why, they might be replaced by Republicans, and then where would we be?