November 13, 2019

The Plans of Progressive Democrats

wet fall leaves

As those of us on the left consider the various Democratic candidates for president and try to choose among them, some will inevitably strike us as insufficiently progressive. Some of us are unimpressed with the so-called "centrist," "moderate," or "establishment candidates." We may prefer a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren to a Joe Biden or an Amy Klobuchar because we want the "big structural change" and are drawn to a more radical agenda (I realize many on the left bristle at the suggestion that any of these ideas are radical). I have an easy time relating to this because it is where I've been for at least the last 20 years. I want the big structural change, and anything less seems like settling. I usually find the candidates who emphasize larger-scale change more appealing than those who seem to be more about maintaining the status quo.

In recent years, it has become clearer to me that there are at least a few problems with this. Perhaps the biggest is that there are some real limits to what a president can do without his or her party controlling Congress. As I said in a recent comment on this post, much of what the current crop of progressive candidates have been promising isn't realistic. As desirable as I find some of it and as realistic as I want it to be, I recognize that most of it will never pass Congress. Much of what we are being promised is little more than a pipe dream. I suspect that some people recognize this and that this may even be part of why voter turnout is relatively low. After a while, what we hear from our candidates starts to sound like what the TV preachers have been promising their flock.

Even if we could somehow manage to elect the most progressive candidate we've ever had, that person would accomplish little without Democratic supermajorities in both the House and the Senate. Remember, the Republican Party has demonstrated that it can effectively derail legislation even with fairly small numbers. Even if the Democrats won slim majorities in both chambers, this likely wouldn't be enough to pass the more controversial policies. As powerful as a president is, it is hard to imagine one handing out "free" college or Medicare for all, resolving the global climate crisis, ending income inequality, and all the other policies we find appealing without a whole lot of help from Congress.

Many will respond to this by pointing out that the presidency is only the beginning. The new Democratic president would need help from Congress but would get it as Democrats won big in Congress over the next few elections. That sounds great, but has it ever happened? The pattern we have seen in recent years is that the other party usually picks up seats in Congress because of all the outrage their base feels about the new president. If one of the more progressive candidates won in 2020, they'd have trouble accomplishing most of what they are promising and Republicans would likely gain seats in Congress in the next election.

I haven't heard anybody predicting that 2020 will put a Democrat in the White House and Democratic supermajorities in both houses of Congress. That does not seem to be a realistic possibility. Without that happening, it is not clear how the more progressive candidates would be able to deliver on their bigger promises. And will their base turn out to support them next time if they haven't?

None of this should be interpreted as hopelessness. As our current president has made painfully clear, there is still much a president can do that we should care about. What I am suggesting is that it might be a mistake to focus too much on whether we prefer one candidate's policies to another's if the reality is that neither has a realistic chance of passing Congress. I do value idealism, and I am interested in the candidates' values. Maybe we should be paying at least as much attention to qualities like leadership and what sort of track record candidates have for getting things done. In short, we need to be realistic in our expectations for candidates and recognize the obstacles they will face in enacting their policies if elected.