In August 2019, as I grew frustrated with the early stages of the Democratic presidential primary, I wrote a piece called How to Campaign When Nothing is Possible. It predicted the political landscape in 2021 for an incoming Democratic president under three different realistic scenarios. In none of the scenarios would the policy differences between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (or the other contenders) add up to a hill of beans. This was my main point. I was trying to educate people, but also to calm them down.
Fortunately, the first scenario, which envisioned the Republicans holding onto control of at least one chamber of Congress, didn’t come to pass. But here’s what I said about it.
If the Republicans maintain their majority in the Senate, the new Democratic president will not be enacting one iota of their top shelf legislative agenda. There will be nothing major on health care or college loans or immigration or climate change. Even judges will be only confirmed in the most belated and begrudging manner, and only if they’ve never said anything on the record that conservatives find irritating. All legislative progress that can be made will come as the result of leverage over must-pass bills, and the leverage will only be truly significant so long as the Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives. But navigating government shutdowns and threats of national default in order to attach a few things to appropriations bills is not going to turn many of a candidate’s campaign promises into reality.
The second scenario envisioned the Democrats winning the trifecta–control of the White House, Senate and House, which is what actually transpired–but not having the balls to preemptively change the Senate rules to do away with the legislative filibuster. Does this look like what you’re witnessing now?
If, however, the Democrats win control of the trifecta (White House, Senate and House), they will still be hamstrung by the Senate’s legislative filibuster and the limits of what vulnerable or conservative Democrats are willing to support. It’s actually becoming foreseeable that the Democrats will do away with the legislative filibuster, thus allowing them to pass bills with fifty instead of sixty votes. But that would require them to be completely united, or nearly so if they somehow win even more than four GOP-held seats in 2020. Because the Democratic caucus includes many institutionalists, it’s probable that they won’t kill the filibuster for good until they’ve given the Republicans most of the 2021 congressional calendar to provide some compromise. Only if they are frustrated in that effort (and they will be) does it seems possible that every Democratic senator will be ready to make the move. As a result, President Biden (or Warren or Harris or Sanders, etc.) will probably lose all the momentum normally enjoyed during the honeymoon period of a new chief executive.
The only way around this is to use the budget reconciliation process to cram as much of President Biden’s through the Senate as possible, and that’s the strategy the Democrats have attempted. I’ll come back to this in a minute, but I also provided a last scenario when the Democrats actually would take preemptive action to eliminate the legislative filibuster.
Yet, even if the Democrats win the trifecta and eliminate the legislative filibuster, they’ll still have huge problems passing legislation. Even assuming that Nancy Pelosi can push the president’s agenda through her chamber (and this is doubtful for some of the policies the candidates are pushing), there are senators (like Michael Bennet of Colorado, for example) on the record opposing much of the progressive candidates’ agenda. There are senators like Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia who vote with the Republicans almost as often as they vote with the Democrats. Manchin, by the way, will probably be the chairman of the Energy Committee, making impactful climate legislation next to impossible to pass. And then there will be the freshman class. In order to get a net gain of four seats, the Democrats will have to win a seat or two in states like Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Kansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. Even the seemingly easy pickings in Colorado, Arizona and (perhaps) Maine are going to bring in freshmen who won’t feel very safe in their seats.
In this scenario, the only things that will be legislatively possible are going to have to pass muster with the one or two most conservative/vulnerable Democrats in the Senate. And this is the rosy scenario. One way of putting it is that if Joe Manchin doesn’t want it to happen then it almost definitely is not going to happen.
I think the best way of looking at the present situation in Washington DC is that it’s combination of the second and third scenarios. The Democrats did win the trifecta and they did leave the legislative filibuster in place. But much of what I discussed in the last scenario applies to everything they’re trying to do through budget reconciliation because it depends on total unanimity within the caucus. Even on specifics, parts of the third scenario apply. Just yesterday, the New York Times published a piece detailing Senator Manchin’s role in crafting Biden’s climate plan and why this is going to be inadequate. Meanwhile, Senator Sinema has informed the White House that she’s opposed to their plan to let Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices. So, even when the Democrats can pass things with just 50 Senate votes, we discover that progressive ideas cannot get through.
I didn’t get into all the procedural minutiae in my 2019 article, but I could have predicted that the Senate parliamentarian would present an obstacle to progressive change, too. The Associated Press reports that the Democrats won’t be allowed to include key immigration reforms in the budget reconciliation process.
Democrats can’t use their $3.5 trillion package bolstering social and climate programs for their plan to give millions of immigrants a chance to become citizens, the Senate’s parliamentarian said late Sunday, a crushing blow to what was the party’s clearest pathway in years to attaining that long-sought goal.
The decision by Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate’s nonpartisan interpreter of its often enigmatic rules, is a damaging and disheartening setback for President Joe Biden, congressional Democrats and their allies in the pro-immigration and progressive communities. Though they said they’d offer her fresh alternatives, MacDonough’s stance badly wounds their hopes of unilaterally enacting — over Republican opposition — changes letting several categories of immigrants gain permanent residence and possibly citizenship.
I didn’t enjoy being a wet blanket, but I wanted people to understand that all the arguments over policy between the Democratic candidates were basically irrelevant to the situation they’d face if elected.
So, what are the prospects for enacting Medicare for All, as many of the candidates have proposed? Could a President Biden or Bennet even hope to add a public option to Obamacare? How is President Inslee going to convince Manchin to pass a good climate bill through his committee? How can any of the candidates proposing that we decriminalize illegal border crossings get that through Congress? How about abolishing ICE or creating a slavery reparations program? Is Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren going to be able to deliver a massive trillion dollar college loan forgiveness program that isn’t even supported by many progressives? Will the DREAMERS get any relief? Will comprehensive immigration reform pass? Will Trump’s tax cuts get repealed? Any chance of closing Guantanamo?
The reasons these things were not going to happen was really a matter of mathematics. It was clear even in August 2019 that the Democrats were not going to win 60 seats in the Senate or do away with the legislative filibuster. It was also clear that even if they won control of the Senate, they’d have only the slimmest of majorities, and that members like Sinema and Manchin would be the gatekeepers on what could pass through Congress.
It actually turned out a bit worse than this because the Democrats lost so many House seats that, even though Nancy Pelosi retained the Speaker’s gavel, the moderates became gatekeepers in that chamber as well.
I was able to foresee how this would play out and I got most of the details correct. I find it mysterious why so few progressives were able or willing to offer similar analysis in 2019, but I was a lonely voice at the time. People who offer depressing news don’t get rewarded in our media environment, so I didn’t prosper like many of the people promising ponies and unicorns did. If you like getting good rather than necessarily feel-good analysis, please consider getting a subscription. I feel like I add something that’s badly needed and that you don’t find elsewhere, and I’d like to be able to continue providing this service.