Democrats and the Certainty of Divided Government

There’s been enormous attention given the last few months to Bernie Sanders’ ideological challenge to Hillary Clinton and all she is supposed to represent, and to HRC’s own efforts to tamp down progressive hostility and fears towards her. But as Brian Beutler notes in an important TNR column today, ideology is a relatively small part of the story when it comes to the ability of a Democratic president to implement her or his agenda:

The gloomy truth about the 2016 campaign is that while Democratic candidates, like Republican candidates, must campaign on aspirations, all of them are aware that if the country elects a Democrat in 2016, he or she will probably inherit a Republican House, and perhaps a Republican Senate as well, significantly limiting the potential scope of liberal reform.

Democratic candidates can draw strong ideological distinctions between one another, but their presidencies will be circumscribed by less lofty constraints like political strategy and technocratic imagination.

As Beutler notes, Sanders and Clinton have both made it reasonably clear they will represent a turning away from the much-discussed (and I would argue, much-misunderstood) Obama “theory of change,” which Obama himself has largely discarded:

We already know how the leading candidates propose to grapple with polarization and gridlock. Clinton has consistently argued that making progress in our system of government today requires an appetite and instinct for partisan combat—a theory bolstered by the massive resistance with which Republicans responded to President Barack Obama’s promise of accommodation and bipartisanship.

Sanders, by contrast, believes Obama only ended up in the trenches because he dissolved the enormous activist army he raised over the course of his first campaign. This, to Sanders, was Obama’s original sin, and one he himself would not repeat. Had Obama leveraged the mass movement that arose to get him elected, Sanders believes he could have more easily bent Congress and Republicans to his will, and made lengthier, more progressive strides than he did. And Sanders expects that it will take a similar movement to get him elected.

But “fighting harder” and assembling a larger grassroots army can only take you so far if the levers of power are occupied by the opposition, as conservatives have discovered since 2010 and even more so since 2014. So Beutler’s interested in explicitly “strategic” insights the candidates might have:

The more valuable moments Tuesday night, then, will be ones that tell us who has the most developed and creative sense of how to institute an agenda under the assumption that Congress will be gridlocked and obstructive to Democrats for years to come.

A parallel argument that a Democratic candidate might well use is that the prime objective in 2014 is simply to block a conservative counter-revolution in governance. That would make not some strategic insight or “theory of change” the crucial qualification, but quite simply old-fashioned electability. At this early juncture, no Democratic candidate (with the arguable exception of the non-candidate Joe Biden) has a great deal of empirical evidence for superior electability, but it’s something to watch for down the road.

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.