One of the fundamentals of the 2020 presidential nominating contest is that rank-and-file Democrats really want to beat Donald Trump and are willing to sacrifice other goals if necessary to send the 45th president to the dustbin of history. The most dramatic evidence of the unprecedented power of electability this year was collected by Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter in looking at Iowa caucusgoers, past and future:
[T[he 2008 Democratic caucus exit poll, found that just 8 percent of Democratic caucus-goers picked “has the best chance to win in November” as one of the four personal qualities that mattered most in their vote. The top choice, at a whopping 52 percent, was “can bring needed change.” In 2016, “can win in November” came in fourth place at 20 percent, behind “right experience” (28 percent), “cares about people like me,” (26 percent), and “honest and trustworthy” (24 percent).
In 2004, “can beat Bush” (26 percent) came in a close second to “takes a strong stand” (29 percent). This year, the desire to beat Trump is even more intense. When asked [in a new Monmouth poll] if they had to choose between a candidate they agree with on issues but would have a hard time beating Trump, or a Democrat they don’t agree with but who’d be stronger facing off against the president, 72 percent of Iowa Democrats picked the candidate who could beat Trump.
For those who remember how much Democrats loathed George W. Bush in 2004, this shift is especially dramatic. Not surprisingly, all 23 of the Democrats running for president this year have some sort of electability argument for themselves.
But a lot of the other things they are talking and arguing about involve what they propose to do if elected. Now some of that debate is really about electability, too, particularly from the perspective of self-styled “moderates” who warn that progressive policy proposals will feed Republican claims that Democrats are a wild band of socialist baby-killing America-haters who want to open the borders and register criminal aliens to vote while they are signing up for their free health-care coverage. There’s a counterargument from the left that nonvoters and even some 2016 Trump voters crave single-payer health care and free college and other progressive proposals and have only voted Republican or not voted at all in the past because “moderates” didn’t offer them what they wanted. And there are, of course, substantive arguments you hear off and on over the workability or progressivity of this or that policy idea.
The more difficult question of what Democrats can realistically hope to accomplish after beating Trump gets a lot less attention than it should. Is ejecting this terrible anomaly from the White House enough?
Perhaps it is. Limiting Trump to one term (assuming, as is prudent, that there is zero chance he will be removed from office by the Republican-controlled Senate before that term ends) would remove his stubby fingers from the nuclear trigger, and thrill most of our allies. It would calm financial markets constantly roiled by this unstable man’s gyrations in economic policy and his taste for trade wars. It would stop the Federalist Society’s shockingly successful campaign to stuff the federal courts with conservative ideologues, which a second Trump term could bring to a crucial and almost irreversible tipping point. And it would halt the more radical policies that Trump has implemented by executive order and that Republicans have tried to enact via legislation. Perhaps most important, beating Trump would reduce the likelihood that one of the nation’s two major political parties would become wedded for the foreseeable future to a radical right-wing populism that depends on racist appeals and efforts to subvert democracy for survival.
But anyone who thinks, for example, that addressing climate change is a generational, or perhaps even biological, challenge that can no longer be delayed cannot be satisfied with just avoiding a 2021 hellscape. And Democrats really do need to internalize the fact that they haven’t been in a position to advance their policies in a serious way since 2010.
To be very specific about it, Democrats entered 2009 having won two straight landslides, with a supermajority in the Senate, a big majority in the House, and a popular and charismatic president claiming a mandate for “hope and change.” Yes, those managing the Democratic “trifecta” in Washington had to deal with the aftermath of the financial meltdown and the advent of the Great Recession. But in theory, at least, they had the power to get big things done — until a handful of moderates in their ranks objected to elements of the original Affordable Care Act that in retrospect were essential to Obamacare’s success. And then the whole dream collapsed when Republican Scott Brown destroyed the Senate supermajority in a shocking special election in deep-blue Massachusetts.
In retrospect, Democratic prospects for anything like fundamental change went steadily down from that point, creating a lost decade of dashed hopes and gridlock interrupted only by those two years when Trump and a GOP trifecta won its own half-measures.
Yes, in 2020 Democrats could end the threat of a permanent conservative counterrevolution — a job they started by retaking the House in 2018. But if all they do is to beat Trump, they will be at the very best where they were when it all started going bad in Massachusetts.
Can they aim higher than that? Yes. They can begin, of course, by defending their control of the House and retaking the Senate along with the White House. The latter will not be easy, given the landscape, even if they win the presidency. Without the Senate, though, the new president will be helpless to put together the administration it wants or to begin to reshape the judiciary in a more progressive direction. Big legislative “reaches” like major new health-care reform measures or climate change actions or steps to address income inequality would be dead on arrival. And even with Senate control, the filibuster will make legislative action all but impossible.
So, I would argue, 2020 Democratic presidential candidates need to come clean with Democratic voters. Either they commit to the kind of radical institutional changes — beginning with elimination of the filibuster — that could break Mitch McConnell’s iron grip on the national agenda. Or they just admit that getting rid of Trump is the best they can do.
What won’t work is magical thinking about what a new president can accomplish. Joe Biden’s Senior Center nostalgia for a Senate where people reached across the aisle to get things done is a cruel hoax, even if his own “Senatitis” blinds him to that fact. But so, too is Bernie Sanders’ empty claim that he will somehow create a “political revolution” more powerful than the vast interests protecting the status quo. Both of these old men might as well promise they will cast a spell on Mitch McConnell and turn the snarling wolf into a lamb.
The flip side of this reality is that if Democrats really cannot come up with a more realistic “theory of change” — and there are some possible avenues for at least a limited 2021 progressive offensive, ranging from Elizabeth Warren’s strategy for breaking down McConnell’s power, to Amy Klobuchar’s proposed blitz of executive orders — then perhaps electability truly is the only candidate quality that matters. Ridding America of President Trump would indeed be a noble patriotic accomplishment. But if voters want more, and are willing to take even a minor electability risk to have it, they need to be told how.