The 2012 election was widely seen as a ratification of the status quo: Obama will remain in the White House, the Republicans are still in charge of the House, and Democrats have a majority in the Senate (if not real control, which is virtually impossible in the age of the omnipresent filibuster). But that analysis has its flaws, starting with the fact that GOP control of the House hangs not on the will of the people—more cast votes for Democratic House candidates than for Republicans—but on two quirks of political geography. One is that Democrats tend to cluster in big cities, thus circumscribing the scope of their influence. The other is that Republicans used the recent redistricting process to solidify their majority.
But there are broader differences. Even the returning characters bring new wrinkles to the politics of President Obama's second term, depending on the lessons they learned, or failed to, over the last four years.
Take the Senate Democrats who suffer the unique disadvantage of having ostensible but not functional control of their chamber. Where the filibuster was once a rarity, it has become the rule. Nothing can pass without a supermajority. This is a large part of the reason that the current Congress is, according to NBC News, on track to pass the fewest bills into law since the Clerk of the House started keeping track of these things in the 1940s. The famous "do-nothing Congress" of 1947-1948? It passed 906 laws—710 more than the current group had passed entering its lame-duck session.
It's a powerful lesson in the dangers of the legislative tyranny of the minority. Democrats are now aiming to prevent a rerun, thinking of tweaking the filibuster rules to require things like an actual "talking" filibuster a la Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Time will tell what effect filibuster reform will have on the upper chamber.
Across the Capitol, House Republicans are showing signs of learning lessons about another form of the tail wagging the legislative dog. House leaders know that in order to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, they are going to have to cut a deal that will spur complaints on the right. (While the White House dismissed House Speaker John Boehner's proposal Monday as unserious, the right-wing group Americans for Prosperity described it as leaving conservatives "wanting.")
But while Boehner spent the last two years answering questions about whether he led or was following his caucus's right wing, indications emerged last week that the speaker was exerting himself in the run-up to a deal as four Republicans were stripped of plum committee assignments because, a GOP leadership aide told NBC News, they weren't "team players."
Perhaps the most striking, and promising, evidence of lessons learned comes from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Boehner called himself "flabbergasted" when he was presented with President Obama's opening bid in the fiscal cliff negotiations, because it bore a striking resemblance to what he had campaigned on and the policies he has otherwise been advocating for some time. If you think opening negotiations with a wish-list type bid seems unremarkable (you have to have a starting point from which you compromise, after all), that's because it is.
But Republicans had apparently become accustomed to earlier rounds of negotiations with Obama wherein he would open with an attempt at compromise and then only be drawn further to the right as progressives slammed their heads against their desks in disbelief. This time, "the president is not going to negotiate with himself," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer told the New York Times. What a novel approach.
(In light of President Obama's fiscal cliff strategy of barnstorming to rally support for his positions, questions remain about the extent to which he learned from his first term when his aides promised to keep his campaign machinery active and engaged, only to see it disappear in the face of Tea Party activism.)