The last time the Democratic presidential nomination was seriously in doubt, more than a decade ago, the major candidates all supported a proposal called the "public option" that would allow anyone to buy health insurance from the government. As his party's 2008 nominee, Barack Obama strongly backed a "cap and trade" plan that would require polluters to buy permits in order to emit carbon dioxide. By January 2009, Democrats had the White House and large majorities in both chambers of Congress, and neither of those things happened.
Part of this failure can be chalked up to the Obama administration having to deal with the financial crisis immediately after taking office. But the main culprit was a political system that allows a minority party ample opportunities to block legislation. The public option, wildly popular among Democrats, was passed by the House but killed by a small number of conservative Democratic senators who had an enormous amount of power because Senate filibuster rules require supermajorities of 60 votes to pass laws. A cap and trade bill was also passed in the House but died in the Senate, again largely thanks to the filibuster. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has suggested she wants to pass a cap and trade bill just as she did a decade ago.)
In today's Democratic Party, those proposals seem quaint and tentative. The 2020 presidential contenders often favor more sweeping policies like Medicare for all and the Green New Deal; it's big news when a potential candidate says these ideas are impractical, as Amy Klobuchar and Sherrod Brown recently did. Big, bold ideas are a requirement in the unfolding 2020 primaries, and yet missing from these discussions is a clear explanation about how these progressive dreams are going to become reality. What will a future President Sanders or Gillibrand do to make sure Medicare for all doesn't go the way of the public option circa 2010?
Sometimes candidates are asked how they'll pay for the expensive government programs they want to create, but this is a fairly easy question to answer, especially in this freewheeling political moment. They can tax the rich, which is broadly popular among voters anyway, or else they can point to theories about how deficit spending isn't that big a deal and note that Republicans felt perfectly free to pass deficit-exploding tax cuts. The harder question is how they would legislate anything at all into existence.
Democrats currently control the House and could plausibly take back the Senate in 2020—but they'll almost definitely have a much smaller majority than they did at the outset of the Obama years. This creates a series of enormous challenges for any Democratic president who comes into office having made a bunch of promises about transformative change. Let's use Medicare for all as an example because it's popular both among most of the candidates and the public. The problem is, even if 100 percent of Democratic senators supported Medicare for all, that likely wouldn't be enough to overcome the 60-vote threshold. So what do you do?
One obvious answer is you get rid of the filibuster. But curiously, when asked about this, Democratic candidates have opposed that idea—even Sanders, who told CBS's John Dickerson, “I’m not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster.” He went on to say the real problem in DC is wealthy campaign donors and voter suppression. That might be true—but addressing those problems will also require legislation that will have to overcome the filibuster.
No one can impugn Sanders's leftist credentials or accuse him of not having progressive ideas. But if he's not going to eliminate the filibuster, what's going to happen to his ideas? Does he have a theory about how he could achieve his goals through executive action, as both Obama and Donald Trump have done? Would he try to get more Democrats in the Senate by expanding the number of states in the union, as some liberals have suggested?
A candidate could argue that the executive branch has acquired too much power and that rather than bending rules and upending the way Congress works, the next president should restore normalcy. But given that Republicans will oppose Democratic priorities to the hilt, that view is pretty much incompatible with the priorities most candidates have. You can have Medicare for all or the congressional rules of 2009, but not both.
That's why candidates should be made to discuss their governing plans, not just their goals: Promises are too easy to make. Saying you support a Green New Deal is easy when you know that there's no way such a bill will ever pass Congress. The trickier, and more important, question is about how you would put a Green New Deal into action—what parts could come from executive action, what parts could be passed through the convoluted process of "budget reconciliation," and what parts are not likely to become reality.
Trump got through the Republican primaries promising a border wall that Mexico would pay for, and two years into his presidency isn't even close to fulfilling that vague, nonsensical pledge. If Democrats want to hold the next president to a higher standard, they'll need to ask for a lot more specifics than their GOP counterparts did.
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