Bernie Sanders
Credit: Michael Vadon/Flickr

Paul Waldman ably describes the two most common fallacies pundits and politicians use to explain how Democratic presidents can get stuff done in Washington. One can be called “the Bernie Sanders fallacy.” It involves leading “a grass-roots movement so powerful that it would force Republicans in Congress to vote for things they despise such as single-payer health care and free college.” It’s a manifestly absurd campaign promise and it really shouldn’t even qualify as an aspiration–because it’s delusional. The Republicans will not vote for a progressive vision for America, let alone a Democratic Socialist one. No amount of citizen pressure could ever convince them otherwise.

The second fallacy can be called “the John Hickenlooper fallacy,” after the former Denver mayor and Colorado governor who just announced his candidacy for president. In this scenario, you can convince a sufficient number of Republicans to vote for your agenda by having a respectful dialogue with them.

“When I come into office, I would go to Mitch McConnell to his office and I would sit down with him and say, “Now what is the issue again?” and we would talk and I would continue to speak back to him — it sounds silly, right? But this works, this is what I did with the suburban mayors, and they hated the city of Denver. You go to any metropolitan area in the country, the arguments between the big-city mayor and the suburban mayors, they’re almost endless. We’re the one place where this has gotten done, and I think it’ll work in Washington.”

As Waldman correctly points out, this is every bit as ridiculous as the Bernie Sanders fallacy. Mitch McConnell would only agree to talk policy with a Democratic president if he could use it to better understand how to crush that president’s priorities. There is absolutely no advantage in telling McConnell what your fondest hopes are, or even what you deem minimally necessary. If you can outfox him, then maybe you can get some things done, but there is no way he will ever lend you a hand. His only interest is in thwarting you and making you a one-term president.

This is why there is so much talk in progressive circles about doing away with the legislative filibuster in the Senate. There is approximately zero chance of the Democrats winning 60 seats in the Senate in 2020, so the Republicans will be able to filibuster almost all legislation. That means that there will be almost no legislation. There are already eleven billion people who are either running or seriously considering running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and not a single one of them has a different plan to overcome this obstacle.

The only way to pass progressive legislation in Congress is to do it without any Republican votes. But that is not how Congress works. Congress includes the Senate, and the Senate requires sixty members to overcome a legislative filibuster.

There are two things that will not happen between now and Inauguration Day, 2021: The Senate Republicans won’t become responsive to citizen pressure or presidential cajoling, and the Democrats will not get enough votes in the Senate to end a filibuster on their own.

Any presidential candidate who promises to accomplish anything legislatively needs to explain how they’ll go about overcoming this problem. They’ll need a better answer than the ones Sanders and Hickenlooper have provided thus far.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at