Since there have been 50 states, Republicans have never had 60 senators. There were 60 or more Democratic senators after seven elections -- 1960 (64), 1962 (66), 1964 (68), 1966 (64), 1974 (61), 1976 (62) and 2008 (60, following Arlen Specter's discovery that he is a Democrat, and the protracted Minnesota recount). But both parties have been situational ethicists regarding filibusters.
In 2005, many Republicans, frustrated by Democrats blocking confirmation votes, wanted to ban filibusters of judicial nominees. They said such filibusters unconstitutionally prevent the president from doing his constitutional duty of staffing the judiciary. But this is not just the president's duty; the Senate has the constitutional role of consenting -- or not -- to nominations.
"Great innovations," said Jefferson, "should not be forced on slender majorities." Hence Barack Obama recently embraced a supermajority mechanism: The 18-member commission he created to recommend measures to reduce the deficit requires that any recommendation be endorsed by 14 members.
Filibusters are devices for registering intensity rather than mere numbers -- government by adding machine. Besides, has a filibuster ever prevented eventual enactment of anything significant that an American majority has desired, strongly and protractedly?
Liberals say filibusters confuse and frustrate the public. The public does indeed mistakenly believe government is designed to act quickly in compliance with presidential wishes. But most ideas incubated in the political cauldron of grasping factions are deplorable. Therefore, serving the public involves -- mostly involves -- saying "No." The Bill of Rights, like traditional conservatism, effectively pronounces the lovely word "no" regarding many possible government undertakings -- establishment of religion, unreasonable searches and seizures, etc.
The fiction that government is "paralyzed" by partisanship is regularly refuted. Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Bush reached across party lines in 1986, 1996 and 2001 to pass tax reform, welfare reform and No Child Left Behind, respectively. The $700 billion TARP legislation and the $862 billion stimulus were enacted with injudicious speed.
Liberals are deeply disappointed with the public, which fails to fathom the excellence of their agenda. But their real complaint is with the government's structure. And with the nature of the politics this structure presupposes in a continental nation wary of government and replete with rival factions. Liberals have met their enemy and he is the diminutive "father of the Constitution," of whom it was said that never had there been such a high ratio of mind to mass: James Madison.