Will Democrats Be Able To Govern?

Last week I wrote that, as it becomes increasingly clear that Clinton will win the election, the conversation has started to shift. One point I made was that we are seeing more talk about how Democrats will respond to a Clinton presidency. Johnathan Cohn highlighted the challenge.

It’s not only Republicans who will be giving Clinton headaches—she’ll get plenty of those from Democrats, too. To pass anything at all, she needs to be able to compromise with the GOP without alienating progressives…“I think the politics are now going to be harder from the left,” says one person who has been privy to recent tax reform negotiations in Congress. “I am worried that anything that is attractive enough to Paul Ryan on the corporate side is going to be really hard for the Warren-Sanders side.”

Before anyone can drill down on how that will play out, we still have a couple of questions left to answer. First of all will be the election outcome in Congress. The best case scenario in the Senate would be a slight Democratic majority – not enough to overcome a filibuster by Republicans. Under those circumstances, the next question becomes whether or not Democrats are willing to re-write the rules on the filibuster. A Democratic House is less likely. If Republicans maintain control, we will have divided government with the likelihood of chaos in the GOP ranks.

Nevertheless, the Warren-Sanders side of the Democratic Party is starting to weigh in. It seems clear that for Senator Warren, the big issue is appointments.

If Clinton wins, Warren has promised to rattle the gates of a Clinton White House — as she did to President Barack Obama — pushing for progressive, anti-Wall Street crusaders to fill posts as top economic advisers and, most importantly to her of all, Treasury secretary…

Warren and her staffers have already been feeding to the Clinton campaign lists of individuals they would consider appropriate for those posts — and signaling in unsubtle terms those whose appointment they would fight to block.

The media and some Warren-Sanders supporters are fond of playing that up as some kind of impending battle. That is based on an assumption that Clinton is a wolf in sheep’s clothing when it comes to a progressive agenda, which doesn’t seem rooted in anything she’s done in this campaign. So I expect that there will be less fireworks on that one that people assume. If/when Clinton takes on Senator Warren, it would probably be with a candidate that they will have trouble objecting to. For example, will she want to block the nomination of a strong competent black woman like Cheryl Mills to a cabinet position? We’ll see.

While Bernie Sanders is joining with Warren to talk about Clinton appointments, he seems more focused on fighting for legislation based on the Democratic platform he negotiated at the end of the primary.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a loyal soldier for Hillary Clinton since he conceded the Democratic presidential nomination in July, plans to push liberal legislation with like-minded senators with or without Clinton’s support if she is elected — and to aggressively oppose appointments that do not pass muster with the party’s left wing.

In an interview, Sanders said he and other senators have started plotting legislation that would achieve many of the proposals that fueled his insurgent run for president, including a $15 federal minimum wage, tuition-free public college, an end to “mass incarceration” and aggressive steps to fight climate change.

The senators, Sanders said, also plan to push for the breakup of “too big to fail” banks and to pressure Clinton to appoint liberals to key Cabinet positions, including treasury secretary.

Pushing for legislation you have supported during a campaign is exactly what Senators are supposed to do. So this is welcome news from Sanders. While he will soon learn that much of the problem with “mass incarceration” is up to the states – rather than the federal government – to solve, it will be interesting to see how Sanders develops support in the Senate for passage of a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free public college and breaking up the banks. Even when President Obama had a 60 vote majority for a few months in the Senate during his first term, we saw that most of the negotiating for big legislation took place with Democrats. Will Sanders work to get them on board?

I certainly hope that this is the approach the Warren-Sanders wing of the Democratic Party takes in the next Congress. As we’ve seen with Republicans (primarily the Freedom Caucus) over the last few years, that body is set up so that a small minority can block the process of governing by objecting to the strategies of their leadership. Promoting a progressive agenda and developing the votes for passage is where real governing happens.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.