It was a sight to behold: a former vice president, two senators and a former mayor on a stage in New Hampshire a week ago, arguing over the impossible. Would Sen. Bernie Sanders deliver Medicare-for-all immediately, as he promised to do? Would doing so double the federal budget, as former vice president Joe Biden countered? Should they maybe go with Medicare-for-all-who-want-it, as former mayor Pete Buttigieg suggested? It didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but he has said it would put the United States on a “glide path” to something he called “a Medicare-for-all environment.” And what of the fact, raised by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, that Buttigieg tweeted a pledge two years ago to “indubitably” support Medicare-for-all?
Given what actually happens in the nation’s capital these days, the men and women on the stage may as well have been arguing over the price of unicorn at the local market and how they’d cook it. Set against the current political backdrop, the elaborate policy debates among the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination (Will college be free for everyone, or for everyone but the rich kids? Would a tax on wealth over $50 million be a flat tax or a progressive tax?) feel increasingly delusional.
It’s not just because President Trump, an incumbent in a strong economy, stands a good chance of winning a second term. Even if one of the Democratic candidates were to beat him in November, they would become president, not emperor. As such, they’d have to deal with the Senate, an institution where fast and sweeping legislation is difficult to pass in any scenario, to say nothing of one dominated by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Using tactics that push the limits of what’s acceptable, he has transformed the chamber from the “cooling saucer” the framers envisioned to a Sub-Zero freezer, a place where 300 bills passed by House Democrats don’t even merit debate, let alone votes, even with the insurance policy of Trump’s veto.
It’s healthy to debate policy, but Democrats aren’t doing it in a vacuum. Research shows that contentious primaries hamper a party’s performance in the general election. Candidates are bickering about blue-sky proposals — with Sanders supporters destroying backsliders, Biden invoking segregationists to insist that legislative compromise works and Buttigieg going after Biden for his vote to invade Iraq 17 years ago — but they’re having a semantic argument. The stalemate moots their differences. The next Democratic president will be lucky to seat a Supreme Court nominee. In a climate of such vicious and total partisan obstruction, the only real issue is electability.
Hashing out policy differences within a party can be a good and important process. A president can implement many policy changes by executive fiat, especially in the realms of immigration and law enforcement (as Trump has amply demonstrated). A president can also create change by interpreting existing law and choosing what to emphasize through Cabinet appointments and regulation. Spelling out where you stand on, say, health care in the primary race is an important signal to voters of a candidate’s priorities and how she would administer the Department of Health and Human Services.
Intra-party arguments also help generate ideas for the future. Proposals that at first seem outlandish often become orthodoxy later. “When you read conservative magazines when they’re out of power in the 1960s, they’re having all kinds of arcane ideological battles about crazy things like privatizing Social Security,” says Seth Cotlar, a historian at Willamette University. “And people are saying: ‘Are you crazy? That’s never going to happen!’ And they’re right in that they’re not going to happen then. But then, in 2004, President George W. Bush proposed privatizing Social Security. If we look at politics not as what’s going to happen next year but how do you build popular support and awareness for ideas, that takes a really long time.”
None of that is relevant today. McConnell was a big, beautiful wall long before Trump showed up. The man stole a Supreme Court seat from a Democratic president in 2016 under a flimsy pretext — it would be unfair to confirm a justice in an election year, he said — but now says openly that he wouldn’t apply such logic if Trump wanted to fill a court vacancy this year. He’s not going to alter his winning strategy by casting aside his stupendously successful cynicism for a President Klobuchar.
Fine, you might say. Democrats have to win the Senate and the presidency and keep the House. If they do, then they’ll be justified in haggling over the intricacies of the Green New Deal. Set aside that projections show Republicans keeping their Senate majority in November. Set aside the fact that a Democratic takeover in the chamber would probably constitute just 50 blue senators plus a possible tiebreaking vote from a Democratic vice president. Even control of the chamber, political scientists say, wouldn’t guarantee an easy legislative path for liberal lawmakers. “If it’s not Mitch McConnell, it’s Joe Manchin,” says Dan Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, referring to the conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia, where Trump is wildly popular. “If it’s not Joe Manchin, it’s [Arizona Sen.] Kyrsten Sinema. Even if the Democrats were to take the Senate, they would be limited by their own most centrist members. Maybe they have 50 seats, but they’re only going to pass what their entire caucus votes for.”
Controlling both chambers of Congress still wouldn’t stop Republicans from wielding a tremendous amount of power through the filibuster, which takes 60 votes to break through. And McConnell would surely devise other creative stalling and blocking maneuvers. “Under the last two Democratic administrations with unified government, Republicans put up more opposition than most out-of-power parties tend to be able to do,” says Princeton political scientist Frances Lee, recalling that Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had the luxury of Democratic control of Congress in the first years of their first terms, and Republicans still managed to block much of their legislative agendas. During Clinton’s first term, Republicans in the 103rd Congress thwarted a bill that would have protected striking workers from retaliation and another that would have provided some public financing for political campaigns. During Obama’s first two years, the GOP blocked a measure that would have strengthened disclosure requirements for political donations; significantly weakened the Dodd-Frank regulations of the banking sector just as it was threatening to sink the entire economy; and (ironically) nixed Democrats’ proposals to give tax incentives to companies that bring jobs back from overseas. Now, when polarization and partisanship are at still higher levels, Lee says, “you could certainly expect a solid wall of opposition” from Republicans.
What about Biden’s theory that, without Trump and his divisive rhetoric, Republicans will again work across the aisle, just as they did when Biden was a jaunty young senator from Delaware? “With Trump gone, you’re going to begin to see things change,” he said last summer. “Because these folks know better. They know this isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing.” Surely a moderate in the White House could find a way to get Republicans on board with, say, student loan forgiveness, right? But today, “Republicans have no incentive to work with Democrats,” says Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University. “The 20th-century grand-coalition model is increasingly unlikely in today’s environment.” Because local elections have become highly nationalized, because liberals and conservatives live in different, non-intersecting informational universes, because Republicans have become viciously good at threatening dissenters with primary challenges (or physical harm) and because the president has become such a potent and all-encompassing political and cultural symbol, there is little cause these days for senators to vote with a president of the other party.
In other words, Democratic primary candidates and their supporters can fight all they want about pie-in-the-sky policy proposals, but they’ll sooner get some roast unicorn than see Medicare-for-all enacted next year. Which is why you can vote for Sanders even if you oppose Medicare-for-all, and why Elizabeth Warren’s backers can easily give their support to moderate Buttigieg even if they don’t love everything he’s said on the debate stage.
The policy stakes are lower than voters believe, but the focus on them is much higher. In a 2016 study that examined the impact of divisive primaries, political scientists Alexander Fouirnaies and Andrew B. Hall found that the longer and more contentious a nominating process, the worse the party performs in November. “Divisive primaries exert a substantial penalty on parties in the general election,” they wrote. They found that the negative effect was amplified the higher up the food chain you go: The more national and high-profile the office, the greater the eventual penalty. The most damaging kind of primary, they found, was the kind in which ideological purity is at stake. In other words, this one.
There’s a possible bright spot, though, according to Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. “Most moments of a lot of legislating happen when no one expects them to happen, and it happens in very difficult environments,” he told me. In 1961, when a naive and bright-eyed John F. Kennedy proposed a thing called Medicare, it was deemed preposterous. When Lyndon B. Johnson took over after his assassination, Congress was gridlocked on seemingly everything. But the upswell of the civil rights movement and the 1964 electoral sweep changed the equation; a year later, Medicare became law. During the first year of Obama’s presidency, a financial crisis, disillusionment with Bush-era Republican policies and the dramatic election of the country’s first black president gave Obama an opening to pass something as ambitious as the Affordable Care Act. Despite everything that would come later — Merrick Garland, Obama nominees literally dying while waiting for McConnell’s Senate to confirm them — “it was a unique set of factors that created this little window that closed pretty quickly,” Zelizer explains.
For that little window to open at all, though, Democrats need to stop tearing each other down over the details and focus on making sure this moment doesn’t completely pass them by.
Illustration by Elizabeth Hart/The Washington Post. Photos by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post, Charles Krupa/AP, Bonnie Jo Mount/ The Washington Post, Salwan Georges/The Washington Post, and Melina Mara/ The Washington Post, Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post and Salwan Georges/The Washington Post.