The 2016 race is already a source of nearly-constant coverage. Just over the last day or two, we’ve got speculation about Brian Schweizer, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and of course Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. And we’re still almost three years out! This is typical of media coverage of the presidential race, and it will only increase as time passes. But it’s become increasingly clear that the presidency is less important than is typically assumed, and the presidential race gets unwarranted attention compared to Congress.
This has long been a weakness for Democrats, who tend to turn out during presidential years and stay home during midterms. But focusing on the presidency to the exclusion of more boring races is an increasingly serious weakness for the party. It’s time the party came to grips with the fact that the biggest roadblock to new liberal policy is not who wins in 2016 — it’s whether Dems can take and keep power in Congress.
I do think arguments over the 2016 race will be an important part of how political parties make decisions. But if there’s anything the Obama era of intense polarization has taught us, it’s that when it comes to domestic policy the president is close to helpless. When Obama had big majorities in the House and Senate, he passed the party’s agenda. But since losing the House, he has basically done doodly-squat.
Things used to be somewhat different. Back when parties’ boundaries were a bit fuzzier, and we had conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans that could be bought with a bit of pork barreling, one could assemble bipartisan coalitions. But those days are long past. Pork earns nothing but contempt even in one’s own state. And in today’s GOP, suggesting that maybe President Obama is, say, good at Hungry Hungry Hippos is met with a spit-flecked, purple-faced rage attack, followed by a quick primary challenge. Bipartisanship, excepting a few unusual circumstances, is dead forever.
And so, when Republican won a huge wave election in 2010 and proceeded to gerrymander themselves a seven percent handicap in the House, that was curtains for any new liberal legislative initiatives — indeed, curtains for any policy agenda at all, unless you count austerity-ing ourselves into the poor house for no reason as an agenda. Because these days, Congress is where domestic policy happens — or gets killed. Even when Democrats had 60 Senate votes that was true. It was “centrist” senators who demanded the Recovery Act be below $800 billion for no reason. It was Joe Lieberman who killed the public option and Medicare buy-in for Obamacare.
Conversely, a liberal legislature has made Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper seem much less moderate than he really is.
Therefore, Elizabeth Warren will be of much greater use in the Senate rather than being yet another candidate who leaves after a few years to make a bid for the White House. There are a surfeit of candidates for that, and a serious shortage of senators who are interested in economic justice. She seems to be someone who genuinely cares about policy, and I imagine she realizes by now that the presidency is no place to write bills.
Encouragingly, the party does seem to be gradually focusing more on reforming Congress. The filibuster has finally been done away with on most nominations. People are beginning to talk about counter-gerrymandering action to decrease the Republican structural advantage in the House. But there is a long way to go yet if the party is going to match the traditional Republican advantage during midterm elections. It’s time to get to work.