I like this discussion of last night’s Democratic debate by Daniel McCarthy. His main point is that, although the less radical participants — John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, and Steve Bullock — have no chance of being the Democratic nominee, they typify a certain type of congressional Democrat (though only Ryan serves in Congress) with whom a Democratic president would have to work. McCarthy says:
Congress is full of Democrats like Bullock, Hickenlooper, Ryan, and Delaney, and the party’s survival in red, pink, and purple states still depends on such moderates.
“Full” might be overstating things, but there is a bloc of such Democrats, and that bloc would emerge as an obstacle to the kind of radical change Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders advocate. It happened to Barack Obama:
When Barack Obama won the White House the first time in 2008, he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and his margin of popular victory was enough that in theory he had a real mandate. Yet the most Obama, with all that political capital, could achieve was the passage of a healthcare reform modeled after the plan enacted by a Republican governor in Massachusetts four years earlier.
Should Sanders or Warren win next year’s election, the odds are he or she will still have to contend with a Republican Senate. Yet even if the Democrats were to take the Senate, what kind of Democrats would hold the balance of power? Enough Democrats of the Delaney type to make a ‘political revolution’ of the sort Sanders called for a dead letter from day one.
Donald Trump faces a similar dynamic:
He won the White House with a Congress entirely controlled by his party, but the Republicans running the House of Representatives were Republicans like then-Speaker Paul Ryan. As a result, no significant, let alone revolutionary, new legislation tackling immigration or trade or any other signature Trump issue was forthcoming.
The House and Senate instead poured all of Trump’s political capital into refighting the Obamacare battle of 2010, then finally producing a big tax cut. Trump’s revolution has been stalled by the quality of Republicans he’s had to work with in Congress.
Any revolution Sanders or Warren dream of would face the same difficulties from within their party, too.
I think that’s right. I hope it is.
But McCarthy’s optimism about the constraints on a Democratic president is limited. He sees Congress as a “lagging indicator” of where the country is headed:
[G]overnors and other state officials in competitive places will find new ways to triangulate between their parties’ leaders and the centrist elements in their states — for as long as centrist elements remain politically salient, which should not be taken for granted as lasting forever. . . .
Whatever happens to Trump, Sanders, and Warren next year, their ideologies may also bring about a legislative transformation that lags a few steps behind presidential politics. In short, America’s elections are in for continuing upheaval, and while the likes of Tim Ryan or John Delaney might obstruct a President Sanders or President Warren in the short term, in the not-so-distant future they are facing the same extinction that has come to Paul Ryan. These are wild times.
That’s one possibility. The other is that America gets tired of all the wildness.