Alter: Dodd, Dorgan, and Discontent in the Senate

Anyone care to wager on the Republicans' picking up 10 seats and taking control of the Senate this year? I didn't think so. Even the Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Steele, is doubtful, and that's only partly because the GOP war chest ($8 million) is currently less than Tiger Woods's BlackBerry bill.

So why are the Democrats so queasy about the retirements of Sens. Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan? Because the news drove home the obvious point that the Democrats' chances of maintaining a 60-vote supermajority are slim in midterm elections that almost always hurt the party in the White House. Even in the unlikely event they win red North Dakota, Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas), Michael Bennet (Colorado), and—in the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished department—Harry Reid (Nevada) are in trouble. Holding 60 is hard: last week Democrats were gobsmacked with the realization that in 2011 and '12 they will likely accomplish little in Congress.

That's because we're in an Era of Sour Feelings, when GOP obstruction and Democratic fears are stinking up the once clubby cloakroom. Cross-aisle friendships are almost nonexistent now. Whether the explanation is conservatives who are terrified that smiling at a liberal will bring a primary challenge from an unhinged tea-bagger, or the unintended consequences of ethics rules limiting convivial junkets, it's on many a senator's mind: the place is broken.

Refreshingly, Dodd admits he's leaving, in part, because he was headed for a shellacking (Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal will likely keep Connecticut blue). But he also cites the death of close friend Ted Kennedy. Dorgan might well have hung on to his seat. He told me that, after four decades in politics, this was his last chance to do something else with his life: "I don't want to be here at 80 sucking Cream of Wheat through a straw."

But it's well known in the Senate that, like many of his colleagues, Dorgan is heartsick about the institution. He is a real prairie populist; he quotes the late Texas senator Ralph Yarborough defining populism as "putting the jam on the lower shelf so everyone can reach it." In today's Senate, it takes 60 votes just to unlock the cupboard. One might imagine that filibusters are reserved for controversial measures like health-care reform. Not with this GOP minority. It tries to filibuster almost everything, including bills that later pass 80–20 or even 90–10. Each procedural motion requires 30 hours of debate that can drive even the most dutiful senator to distraction. The motive is simple: delay long enough to make President Barack Obama fail.

It's worked before. In 1993 then–House majority leader Richard Gephardt paid a call on a Republican backbencher named Newt Gingrich. Gephardt said: "We have a health-care plan. What's yours?" Gingrich said, "Our plan is to defeat your plan and win the next election." Which is what happened in 1994.

Gingrich's scorched-earth tactics have infected the Senate, and not just on health care. Whenever Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell might be tempted to act collegially, Tom Coburn (who asked America to pray that some senators—meaning ailing Sen. Robert Byrd—didn't make it to the chamber last month to vote), Jim DeMint (who hopes to "break" Obama), and David Vitter (whose adventures in New Orleans's brothels don't appear to have induced any humility) are there to set McConnell right. One senator compares the trio to a drop of red dye in the Senate's water, saying that the congeniality of the Senate curdled when they got there. They place a "hold" on nearly everything in the Senate, which infuriates their Republican colleagues, too. As my college-age son reminds me, three tools are enough to wreck any fraternity.

To change Senate rules requires 67 votes, so forget that. But instead of getting all morose, why don't Democrats use 2010 to build on their 2009 accomplishments? You didn't hear much about them because the Democratic base has turned into a bunch of pouty purists who can't take yes for an answer. Instead of being thrilled about the most important piece of social legislation in a generation, Democrats are, once again, perusing their selection of fine whines.

It's time for them to lift their chins and face the world as it is, not as Daily Kos told them it was supposed to be. Then sour can turn sweet this year on jobs, financial regulation, immigration reform, climate change—and the rest of the Democratic agenda.

Jonathan Alter is also the author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.