There’s a vigorous argument going on among Democrats about whether that makes Sanders unelectable, which I’m not going to go into here except to reiterate that we have no idea what will happen in the general election and how voters will react.
But here’s something that people haven’t really considered: Whether you think a social democratic revolution of the kind Sanders promotes is good or bad, the realities of Congress will make it impossible to bring about. In fact, if Sanders is elected, the major policy contours of his presidency will be nearly identical to those of almost any other Democrat.
That’s true to a great degree of Warren as well (though she has done more thinking about how to use regulatory power to achieve progressive ends). And to be clear, I’m not saying the individual in the Oval Office doesn’t matter. There will be differences in what they prioritize, whom they put into key executive branch positions, and how they react to crises.
But on the big picture, any Democratic president will do most of the same things.
Consider health care. Sanders wants immediate passage of what would be the most generous single-payer system in the world. So what will happen when he puts out that plan?
The answer is: basically nothing. Sanders believes he can pass Medicare-for-all through reconciliation, which requires only 50 votes instead of the 60 needed to overcome a GOP filibuster. But even if Democrats take the Senate, the absolute best-case scenario would get them 52 seats. And not only aren’t there 50 Senate votes for Medicare-for-all, there probably aren’t even 40 votes. Maybe not even 30.
So what does a President Sanders do then? If history is a guide, he’ll compromise. For all we think about Sanders as a purist ideologue, in the Senate he has been happy to support things he considered half-measures, such as the Affordable Care Act, when it mattered. He has always had a pragmatic side. So after Medicare-for-all failed, he’d probably say, “Okay, let’s start with a public option.”
In fact, at that point he’d probably take the position Warren has during the campaign: Do a public option first, and if it works well, in a few years the public and Congress will be more open to Medicare-for-all. And every other Democratic candidate, including “moderates” such as Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar, has also committed to pushing a public option. We don’t know whether that can pass either, but any one of the Democrats would wind up in the same place.
The other ambitious ideas that the candidates have would likely suffer the same fate — especially when you consider that a slim Democratic majority in the Senate would put all the power in the hands of a couple of centrist senators such as Joe Manchin, who will torpedo anything they decide is too liberal.
Sanders’ answer to how he’d deal with that problem is that he’d go to West Virginia and rally the people to force Manchin to go along with the Sanders agenda. That’s preposterous, of course, but so is what every other candidate says about how they’d overcome Senate opposition without compromising, whether it’s Warren saying she’d just “fight” until she won or Biden saying he and Mitch McConnell would hug it out until they came to an agreement. Candidates have to pretend this isn’t an unsolvable problem, but that’s exactly what it is.
Now consider all the other areas where a Sanders presidency would be pretty much exactly like a Warren or a Biden presidency. They’d appoint the same liberal judges. Their Environmental Protection Agency would begin actually protecting the environment again. They’d push for an expanded minimum wage and increased worker protections. They’d take whatever executive actions they could to fight climate change, while pushing for some kind of green infrastructure legislation; whether it’s called the Green New Deal or not, it too will be whatever can garner majority support in Congress.
They’d try to get comprehensive immigration reform and some new restrictions on guns. They’d try to address student loan debt and the need for more child care, and when they can’t get the sweeping universal reforms they want, they’d settle for making some good progress.
And while there might be some differences at the top of agencies — Sanders and Warren certainly aren’t going to staff the Treasury Department with Wall Streeters, while Biden might — the bulk of the 3,000 or so presidential appointments will be the same people, the Democratic government-in-exile currently cooling their heels in think tanks and advocacy groups while they wait for the next Democratic president.
Again, I’m not saying every Democrat’s presidency would be identical. On foreign policy the president has the most latitude to move independently, and unfortunately the candidates have said relatively little about it, though we can be sure that Biden would be more hawkish than Sanders or Warren. But we’re in the midst of a process that convinces us that the future will be radically different depending on which one of these candidates becomes president, and that’s just not likely to be true.
So the Republicans who wake up in a cold sweat imagining the statist nightmare of oppression and deprivation that will result if the wrong Democrat wins the election can rest easy. You won’t like what a Democratic president does, but it won’t be anything like your worst fears, no matter who that president is.