The New York Times reports that “in a sprawling field of 20 candidates, [Joe] Biden stands out for his enduring belief in the good will of congressional Republicans. He insists that the G.O.P. has been bullied by President Trump but that civility and compromise will return to Washington once Mr. Trump is gone.” Many in the party think this is unrealistic, to say the least. “That criticism is particularly pointed with regard to [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell, whose decision to block [President Barack] Obama’s nomination of Merrick B. Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016 elevated him from mere obstructionist to arch-villain in the eyes of many Democrats.”

Biden has responded to critics by saying if dealing with the other side is impossible, you might as well give up on self-governance. He has a point.

The alternatives to working with Republicans are vague or unrealistic. Form a grass-roots movement! To do what? To threaten senators in deep-red states? Pass constitutional amendments! How, with a two-thirds requirement for passage in the Senate (or two-thirds of the states calling for a convention), would that be possible? Even if it were, it might take years to accomplish. Abolish the filibuster for legislation! Not even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) favors that, so even if Democrats should win back the Senate, a good number of Democrats (out of legitimate fear about what happens when Republicans win it back) likely won’t go along.

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The alternative to figuring out how to peel off Republican votes may be more unrealistic than working with some Republicans. So what is to be done?

We start with the most important: Win the Senate. That means ginning up opposition to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) for betraying the pro-choice movement, getting behind a winning candidate (which looks like John Hickenlooper) to knock out Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and winning back the Arizona seat held by the appointed Sen. Martha McSally (former representative Gabrielle Giffords’s husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly). That would give them a tie, enough to squeak by if Democrats also won the White House and had a vice president willing to cast the deciding vote. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), however, has an uphill climb, so Democrats would likely need another seat. North Carolina is looking winnable. The two Georgia seats are also possible.

To win the Senate, Democrats will need a presidential ticket that runs well in the states with key Senate races (e.g., Maine, Colorado, Arizona, Georgia), not a ticket that sneaks by simply recapturing the Blue Wall. If the top of the ticket runs poorly in states with key Senate races, it makes it really, really hard for Democrats to win in down-ballot races.

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All of that makes winning the Senate very hard to pull off. Not impossible, but less than 50-50. Winning the Senate with a comfortable governing majority? Forget it.

If Democrats don’t win the Senate, the chances of accomplishing super-big progressive plans are virtually nil. (And remember, a lot of Democrats don’t support proposals such as Medicare-for-all.)

Even if Democrats do have the Senate and are able to peel off a few Republicans here and there and get rid of the filibuster (a big if) or use reconciliation to pass some items (not a cure-all), the potential for getting far-left agenda items through is very slim. The wish list will get pared back, and the proposal will need to become far more modest. Some items might be attained through executive order, but we’ve learned just how long it takes to beat backcourt challenges and just how fast those can disappear with a new president.

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Democrats would have to figure out what items could pass if they didn’t face a recalcitrant McConnell unwilling to let popular bills get a vote (e.g., background checks, election security). Otherwise, with very few votes to spare, getting anything done is going to require tenacity, skill and willingness to take half a loaf (or more like a quarter loaf). And that’s with a Democratic Senate.

Given all that, I’d like to give the candidates some truth serum to figure out, honestly, how they are going to get done a fraction of what they propose. Campaigns are inspiring and fun, and “big” ideas seem “bold” or “courageous.” They are also, alas, totally unrealistic.

In the back of their minds, Democratic voters should think seriously about who can actually do the job given the closely divided country. Maximalist policies, frankly, are fool’s gold. You really want someone who, with extraordinary skill (both an outside and inside game), can make progress on a few progressive items.

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When you think about it, it’s a minor miracle Obama got the Affordable Care Act through. And once you realize that, you might look at the candidates’ “plans” with an eye to what is remotely possible.

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