One highly relevant question the 20 Democratic presidential candidates who are debating this week might be offered is this: Do you have a plan B for the agenda you will pursue if Republicans retain control of the Senate?
At the moment, the odds are better than even that this is the situation a Democratic presidential winner would face. Even if Democrats do conquer the upper chamber, they’d need to abolish the legislative filibuster or give Mitch McConnell (assuming he’s still the Senate GOP leader) the power to block most bills with just 41 senators. But if Democrats fail to pick up the three net seats they need to flip the Senate, Republicans would be in a position, as they were during the last two years of the Obama administration, to block just about anything and everything, even legislation that can get around the filibuster via the budget reconciliation process.
To the extent that 2020 candidates have bold, sweeping policy proposals that will require legislation, their plans could wind up being purely exhortatory, and perhaps disillusioning to their followers, if they don’t think through less audacious versions that could possibly engender limited GOP support, or that can be implemented without legislation. It is a simple fact that no Medicare for All legislation has a prayer of enactment in a Republican-controlled Senate. What then? Do Democrats try to come up with some limited Medicare buy-in or public option plan and try to pick off a Republican senator or two? Do they just try to shore up Obamacare? And how much of a health-care agenda can be accomplished by agency policies or presidential executive orders?
Virtually all of the Democratic candidates have vowed to reverse Trump executive orders involving immigration and climate change. There are a host of perfidious and ripe-to-be-revoked Trump executive orders and agency policies in the health-care arena as well. Only one candidate, Amy Klobuchar, has come up with a comprehensive list of actions she’d take within the first 100 days, most of which do not require legislation. Other candidates should be pushed in that direction, even if they continue, quite rightly, to think big about what they can accomplish if Democrats do win the Senate. And it’s not enough simply to say that a post-Trump Democratic president will sweep all opposition out of the way by building enthusiastic popular support, as Bernie Sanders has often suggested. We’ve heard that before, as conservative columnist Philip Klein accurately points out:
While the rhetoric may be more radical sounding, the concept of a popular movement rising up to demand sweeping change is not significantly different from Obama’s theory that he’d be able to marshal his impressive campaign organization into a tool to pressure lawmakers to enact his policies once elected. Obama was much more charismatic than Sanders, and he came into power in 2009 during an economic crisis, at one point enjoying a filibuster-proof majority. Yet he spent over a year to pass a healthcare law that would be dwarfed by the $32 trillion plan Sanders has proposed. And by 2011, when Republicans took over the House of Representatives, he was done passing major legislation.
It’s possible a new Democratic president could lay out her or his “bold” legislative plans, whip them through the House, watch them die in the Senate, and then launch a holy crusade to oust the GOP scoundrels in the 2022 midterms. But history would argue against betting the farm on that strategy: The president’s party has either lost or failed to gain Senate seats in 14 of 19 midterms since World War II. And while the 2022 Senate landscape does offer some potential Democratic targets, it’s nothing at all like the heavily skewed 2018 map that enabled Trump’s Republicans to make Senate gains that year.
2020 Democratic candidates should have backup plans in mind, even if they would really prefer talking about their ultimate goals and their “visions” of a country transformed. And arguably the primary voters who are supposed to choose their next champion should know what the various aspirants will do if the general electorate delivers another divided government and a new president’s demands that opposition recede like the Red Sea before Moses are met with mockery and obstruction. All the “bold” and “progressive” agenda items in the world, and all the fight, fight, fight determination not to yield, may produce little more than bitter disappointment.