The energy of the Democratic Party is clearly with its progressive flank. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are proposing big policies that are energizing a progressive base fresh out of patience for warmed-over Republican talking points dressed up in appeals to the “white working class.” Warren has potentially overtaken former vice president Joe Biden, whose raison d’être is to be a reliable drum major, someone progressives can mark time with while they wait out the rolling horror that is Donald Trump’s presidency.
If Joe Biden is having trouble convincing progressives to choose safety over ideology, you can imagine how it’s working for the other moderates in the race. Pete Buttigieg raises money, but attracts fewer black and brown voters than Macklemore. Although they are not walking anachronisms like Biden, Kamala Harris’s and Cory Booker’s attempts to split the difference by offering a “safer” alternative to Warren/Sanders are having trouble getting traction. Amy Klobuchar, running in the “what if Joe Biden didn’t exist” lane, is having trouble staying on the debate stage. What are these candidates supposed to do to tap into the progressive energy when they can’t actually out-progressive the progressives?
This week’s Democratic primary debate in Ohio saw the unveiling of their new, and for some of them last, strategy. I’m calling it “But Now–ism.” Instead of making their plans bigger, the moderate wing is trying to sell their plans as more achievable, right now. Sure, Medicare for All sounds great, but people need health care “right now.” Addressing massive income inequality would be cool, “but now” American workers need a raise. Breaking up Facebook makes perfect sense eventually, “but right now” Trump is on Twitter functionally threatening lives. Moderates seem to agree that we need bold, aggressive action to fix what ails our country—at some point. In the future. Maybe. But now, we should just be satisfied with whatever small-bore solution we can get, because we have a deranged narcissist in the White House right now.
We saw Pete Buttigieg play the “but now” game when he jousted with O’Rourke over O’Rourke’s (admirable, but constitutionally questionable) mandatory gun buyback idea: “We can’t wait for universal background checks that we finally have a shot to actually get through. We can’t wait to ban the sale of new weapons and high-capacity magazines so we don’t wind up with millions more of these things on the street. We can’t wait for red-flag laws that are going to disarm domestic abusers and prevent suicides, which are not being talked about nearly enough as a huge part of the gun violence epidemic in this country. We cannot wait for purity tests. We have to just get something done.”
We saw it from Amy Klobuchar, who decided to set herself in opposition to nearly everything coming out of Elizabeth Warren’s mouth: “I appreciate Elizabeth’s work. But, again, the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done. And we can get this public option done. And we can take on the pharmaceutical companies and bring down the prices.”
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And we saw it from Joe Biden, telling us that his age and experience translate to right-now readiness: “It is required now more than any time in any of our lifetimes to have someone who has that capacity on day one. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to run, why I decided to run this time, because I know what has to be done. I’ve done it before. I’ve been there when we pulled the nation out of the worst financial recession in history. I’ve been there, and I’ve got so many pieces of legislation passed, including the Affordable Care Act, as well as making sure that we had the Recovery Act, which kept us from going into a depression. I know what has to be done. I will not need any on-the-job training the day I take office.”
The moderates would have us believe that their plans are the achievable ones, while the progressive plans are tilting at windmills. And if we lived in a functioning democracy, the moderates might be right. Passing bills that are broadly popular is easier than passing bills that are popular to some but trigger fierce opposition from others. “Working across the aisle” to achieve compromise can be a political strength, not a moral weakness. When asked to list “surprising” friends, all of the candidates took the bait and three candidates mentioned their “friendship” with the late Senator John McCain as if they were all auditioning to be on the Ellen show.
But you know whom none of them mentioned? The very-much-alive Mitch McConnell. I’m starting to wonder if any of the Democrats running for president have met that dude yet.
The big, gaping problem in the centrist’s argument for achievable policies is that as long as Mitch McConnell wields power, he will not allow things to be achieved. It doesn’t matter if McConnell is the Senate majority leader or the Senate minority leader; if he survives his reelection campaign, he will not let things pass. All of these Democrats who are opposed to Medicare for All are talking about a public option, as if we are supposed to forget that they failed to get a public option when they controlled 60 votes in the Senate and a popular mandate to act on health care. “But now” we’re going to get a public option through the Senate? What on this good earth makes them think such a thing is more achievable than Medicare for All?
Moderates cannot run around acting like they’re the serious, pragmatic candidates and then expect us to believe that McConnell is going to be visited by three ghosts between the election and the inauguration and wake up willing to let Tiny Tim go see a doctor about his leg.
The big-ticket progressive plans have a Mitch McConnell problem too. There’s only one real way to deal with him, regardless of your policies. It’s called nuking the filibuster. Elizabeth Warren is the only candidate consistently talking about that, as the key to unlocking all of her other policy proposals. When Klobuchar earnestly said that we are “so close” to strengthening background checks on gun purchases, Warren schooled her on exactly what “close” looks like in McConnell’s America: “You say we’re so close. We have been so close. I stood in the United States Senate in 2013…when 54 senators voted in favor of gun legislation and it didn’t pass because of the filibuster. We have got to attack the corruption and repeal the filibuster, or the gun industry will always have a veto over what happens.”
If you don’t have a plan to get your plan past McConnell, then you really don’t have a plan—you have a wish.
And McConnell is only the first part of the Republican gauntlet awaiting a new Democratic president. Even if you somehow get around McConnell, John Roberts and the Republican Supreme Court is right there waiting for you.
If you listened to the debate as a person familiar with the Supreme Court, you could almost hear Roberts guffawing as the Democrats advocated for their policy proposals. Kamala Harris wants to institute a “preclearance” plan that would require states to ask the federal government for permission to change their abortion laws. Ha. Roberts already struck down preclearance as unconstitutional in 2013. O’Rourke wants to push forward an assault weapons buyback program. Good luck, buddy. You’re only dealing with the most pro-gun court we’ve probably ever had in American history.
The way to get around Roberts is to pack the courts. But, except for Pete Buttigieg, Democrats have been lukewarm on court reform proposals. And Buttigieg’s court plan is constitutionally questionable. Biden and Julian Castro came out as directly against court packing during the debate. Warren and Harris have suggested an “openness” to court reform, but neither have proposed specific plans.
None of the Democrats have a great answer to deal with John Roberts, which means that all of the Democrats selling you a “but now” plan are really just saying: “Here’s what I would do until the Supreme Court overrules me.”
That’s what makes But Now–ism such weak tea. Nobody can grab the mantle of the “pragmatic” candidate, because nobody has truly wrestled with the practical reality that Mitch McConnell and John Roberts are antidemocratic forces likely to survive the Trump administration. It’s fair to say that the progressive policies are hard to implement, but so are the moderate policies.
Solutions are not magically made easier to pass because they are smaller or less comprehensive. They’re not more practical because you got the idea from reading bathroom graffiti in a truck stop in Des Moines as opposed to reading it in a book you checked out of the library at Harvard. There are useful debates to be had, I suppose, about whether Medicare for All or Medicare for Some, Miniature American Flags for Others is the best policy, but which one McConnell and a Republican Senate minority (let’s hope) will go for is not one of them.
Let me end the suspense for you: The answer is no. Your plan, my plan, their plan, it doesn’t matter. McConnell will block it, and what he doesn’t block Roberts will overturn. That is the reality of the Republican Party these Democrats are fighting. Republicans have rigged the system so well that Republicans are the only ones allowed to win.
If you want to change the outcome, you have to change the rules. Nuke the filibuster, and pack the court—“right now.” Do, or do not; there is no try.