Promising Gridlock

Jonathan Chait reminds us of something rather important today: all the talk about what HRC (or for that matter Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley) intends to do as president often fails to acknowledge what she is destined to do given the likely configuration of forces in Washington in 2017:

The massive amounts of energy exerted by activists to push Clinton further left, and by journalists to measure just how far to the left she has moved, are misplaced. A pragmatic Clinton who runs on modest, incremental progress, or a bold, left-wing Clinton who runs on sweeping change are two archetypes that would both stand to the left of an actual Clinton administration.

None of this, however, is to say that the stakes of the presidential election are insignificant. Just the opposite is true. The presidential election carries hugely important stakes, not just in policy realms where the president wields significant influence on her own, like foreign policy and judicial appointments, but also on domestic policy. It’s just that the stakes have nothing to do with Clinton’s proposals. What’s at stake is the Paul Ryan budget.

He goes on to refresh our memories with the fact that a Republican president with a Republican Congress will be in a position via the budget reconciliation process to pass and implement something very much like one of the two Ryan Budgets, without a single Democratic vote, as virtually every significant Republican in Washington is pre-pledged to do.

Now to be absolutely clear, a Democratic Senate might be able to do some of the essential blocking role Chait attributes to a Democratic president. But the odds are relatively low we’ll see a Democratic Senate if Republicans are winning the White House next year. So the stakes in the presidential race are indeed very high.

In suggesting the fate of “the Ryan Budget” is the only thing that matters in 2016, Chait ignores, of course, some pretty big stakes that are withing the president’s powers as Chief Executive, from the deployment of the U.S. military to executive orders on immigration to prosecutorial policies with respect to both the criminal justice and financial systems, to the exact nature and identity of executive branch and judicial appointees. But without question, avoiding what would happen if Republicans run the federal government is a very big issue, and Clinton or any other Democrat should not be shy about saying so early and often. It is almost certainly one of the mistakes made by the Democratic nominee the last time Democrats had held the White House for two terms, in 2000, when George W. Bush was allowed to pose as the candidate of “safe change” even as Al Gore oscillated between being the candidate of the status quo and the “populist” tribune of “the people versus the powerful.” There’s nothing “safe” about the kind of change Republicans will be offering in 2016, and voters need to hear about it and understand as specifically as possible what it will involve–and why it should be thwarted by voters who may not buy into a full-on progressive agenda. It is entirely true that for the moment Republicans are closer to real partisan power in Washington than Democrats, and no one should enter the polling station without having heard what it entails on multiple occasions.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.