Image Credits: Department of State.
I never really believed that Bernie Sanders could do a better job of turning out low-proclivity voters than Donald Trump, but I acknowledged that it was possible. What I was absolutely certain about was that he would not be able to pass his agenda through Congress. I spelled this out in an August 2019 piece for the Washington Monthly called How to Campaign When Nothing is Possible. It turned out to be too optimistic, but I think you’ll see how prescient my analysis was. A big part of my point was that, if you were concerned about legislative policy, it largely didn’t matter which Democrat won the nomination. All of them would be severely constrained by their inability to overcome a Republican filibuster. If you were trying to decide between candidates, it was less important what they had to say about health care or climate or police violence than what they’d be able to do within the constraints, and also what they might do administratively without the help of Congress.
What irked me to no end was Sanders’ insistence that he could create a groundswell of support to create “a revolution” that would persuade Republicans to cave in to his demands and pass his agenda. In truth, Sanders’ was going to be in a weaker condition than most of the other contenders precisely because he had such a poor relationship with members in the middle of the Democratic Party. Biden’s advantage was basically that he had a better chance of getting the Democratic senators to act with unanimity and to hold down defections from suburban members of the House.
I put forth three basic scenarios, including the one that came to pass–a Democratic trifecta with narrow congressional majorities. I noted that the Democrats would not be able to eliminate the legislative filibuster in the first year, although I hoped that their frustrations might become so great that it could be changed thereafter. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a pipe dream.
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.
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.
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.
That last sentence formed the basis of my analysis for the Democratic primaries, and it was admittedly a thoroughly pessimistic and depressing premise, but it was entirely accurate. What has surprised me is Biden’s inability to bring Manchin along, but ironically I feel like it only bolsters my assumptions. Biden had the best chance of moving Manchin among the Democratic candidates. The others would have done no better and Sanders would have been cut off from the outset. I guess one advantage there might have been less wasted hope, and maybe an earlier pivot to realism, but Sanders has never been known for pivoting or compromise.
I’m really, really frustrated to have been proven right about how things would go, partly because it has been even worse than I feared, but seeing where we are you might get a clearer picture about why I’ve been so despondent about the prospects for progressive change roughly since the conclusion of the 2014 midterms.
I know people want messages of hope, but I’ve always focused on accuracy as my brand. Things have been bleak, really, really bleak for a long time and I’ve been short-tempered with people who didn’t understand how deep our hole had become.
To put it all in perspective, when it became clear that Biden had defeated Trump I had a conversation with my brother Phil. I was ecstatic and he was tempering my enthusiasm by pointing out how disappointing the congressional races had been. I told him that I had internalized that way ahead of time and while it was indeed a bummer, there wasn’t much Biden could do even with slightly bigger majorities. The critical thing was that Trump had not been reelected because it meant our country still had a pulse. We would get a chance to regroup and recover.
And that’s what we have now, but we’re paying a heavy price for overpromising and having expectations that the Republicans would allow any significant progress. The only way through now is to pull off a major upset in the midterms, and that is looking less likely every day.
Trump’s legal woes are starting to pile up, and maybe they’ll bear fruit and change the trajectory we’re on. On the other hand, we could soon see things get much worse for Biden, especially if Russia invades Ukraine.