Coming to Grips with GOP Obstructionism in the Future

At Lunch Buffet I mentioned and linked to a Paul Waldman column at the Plum Line that posed some uncomfortable questions for the Democratic presidential candidates about what, realistically, they can do to deal with Republican obstructionism in Congress if they are elected. As he noted, it is extremely unlikely that Democrats will retake control of the House next year, and even if they win back the Senate, the filibuster amplifies Republican power into a veto in that chamber. The only candidate directly asked about all that last night was Bernie Sanders:

In 2007, Mark Schmitt called the argument among Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards the “theory of change primary.” As Clinton would describe it in speeches, Edwards thought you demand change, Obama thought you hope for change, and she thought you work for change. Sanders’ theory, as he lays it out here, is essentially that you force change, by making it too politically dangerous for Republicans to resist.

Which is realistic in one way and unrealistic in another. On one hand, Sanders is not bothering to indulge the dream that you can reach across the aisle and bring Democrats and Republicans together. In fact, no candidate from either party is saying that — and after the last seven years, who could do so with a straight face? But that’s a dramatic change from the last couple of decades.

Waldman calls Sanders’ scenario unrealistic, however, in its assumption that a mass political movement centered among pro-Democratic constituencies is going to have a crucial impact on, say, conservative Republican House members with zero interest in or fear of urban progressive constituencies. But it’s not the only unrealistic scenario.

I’m talking about Sanders here because he’s the one who got that question last night, but I haven’t heard Clinton address this problem in a real way, either. And maybe there’s no good solution. I’m not sure how I’d tell them to answer it if I were advising them, at least not if they want to maintain the lofty, hopeful tone presidential candidates tend to use, where they present themselves as potent agents of change and renewal who can overcome any obstacle. No candidate is going to tell voters, “Here are the things I’d like to do, although, let’s be honest, I probably won’t be able to.” Even if it’s the truth.

I’d say the most “realistic” theory of how Republicans might “change” involves the possibility that a third consecutive presidential defeat will finally empower those in the GOP who believe their party has to change instead of doing what it’s been doing more fiercely. But it’s not necessarily going to happen. Another feasible approach, which Clinton has hinted at, is even more aggressive use of executive powers than Obama has undertaken–though that will, of course, inspire even greater GOP obstructionism.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that a lot of this situation is baked into the constitutional cake of a system designed to inhibit rather than facilitate change. That’s why many liberals (including myself on occasion) long for a parliamentary system where popular majorities bring with them the power to govern. But we aren’t going to get one a them any time soon, and 2009 showed that even overwhelming majorities in Congress along with control of the White House doesn’t guarantee the power to enact a coherent agenda. And so we keep asking ourselves and our politicians for fresh theories of how to govern in a system and against an opposition that creates so much artificial power for the option of doing nothing.

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.