Last week, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced that he’ll once again seek the Democratic nomination for president, launching a campaign premised on the same sort of bold initiatives he championed four years ago: Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and free universal college, along with raising taxes on the wealthy and breaking up big banks.

Then he admitted that, if he became president, none of it would ever happen.

He didn’t use those exact words. Instead, he told CBS News’ John Dickerson that he wasn’t “crazy about getting rid of the filibuster,” which is pretty much the same thing. As long as the Senate’s filibuster rule is in place, his agenda won’t become law. Bernie’s been a senator for twelve years. He knows that.

I don’t mean to pick on Bernie. This inane sensibility, rooted in nostalgia for bygone comity and compromise, permeates the Democratic field. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand have made similar statements. Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Sherrod Brown (who has not yet announced a run) signed a letter to the same effect in 2017. Of the major candidates, only Elizabeth Warren has said eliminating the filibuster is on the table. Add in the second-tier candidates, and only Pete Buttigieg—he’s the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and I can’t pronounce his last name either—realizes that if he wants to accomplish anything of substance, the filibuster has to go.

This is a truth Barack Obama only admitted after his presidency ended. The filibuster, he said in November, “has made it almost impossible for us to effectively govern at a time when you have at least one party that is not willing to compromise on issues.”

The filibuster, of course, is the Senate rule—not a law, not a constitutional mandate—that requires sixty votes to get things done. It only takes fifty-one votes to kill it. Democrats did that for most judicial nominations in response to Republican obstruction during the Obama administration. Republicans did the same for Supreme Court nominations after Donald Trump’s election. Trump has begged Senate leader Mitch McConnell to ditch the legislative filibuster once and for all.

McConnell is reticent. He knows the sixty-vote threshold lets him shield vulnerable Republicans from difficult votes. And he also knows his party won’t be in the majority forever, and the filibuster is better suited to preventing progressive policies than advancing conservative ones. (For Trump’s two big legislative initiatives—the failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the barely successful tax cut—McConnell circumvented the filibuster.)

Think of how differently Obama’s presidency could have gone. After a landslide in 2008, he started 2009 with fifty-eight Democrats—Arlen Specter switched parties in April, and Al Franken’s election took until July to settle—and only had sixty for a few months until Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy. The Republicans, meanwhile, were unified in their opposition to almost everything.

So Obama needed to both keep Senate Dems in line and peel off a few Republicans to enact a stimulus amid a collapsing economy. He ended up with half a loaf, a $787 billion plan that wasn’t nearly big enough, about 40 percent of which was composed of inefficient tax cuts that didn’t immediately generate jobs instead of direct spending.

Obama had sixty Democrats for the Affordable Care Act, but thanks to the filibuster, conservative members of the caucus had all the leverage. Senator Joe Lieberman single-handedly killed the public option, which might have been a precursor to Medicare for All. Senator Ben Nelson got the “Cornhusker Kickback” (later nixed) and forced Democrats to tighten restrictions on abortion. Other senators extorted Medicaid benefits for their states. It was politically damaging sausage-making at its ugliest—and only necessary, again, because of the sixty-vote threshold.

And we sometimes forget that Nancy Pelosi’s House passed a carbon cap-and-trade bill that year that the Senate never bothered taking up because it could never get to sixty, and, after a bruising health care fight, Senate Dems didn’t want to bother with a controversial vote that wouldn’t pass anyway. 

All of this contributed to the Democrats getting hammered in 2010 and Obama spending the rest of his administration playing defense. 

To recap: With the filibuster, you get a half-assed stimulus, a messy, convoluted health care plan, no climate change legislation, and political disaster. Without it? Better policy—and, politically, who knows? This should be a cautionary tale.

The Senate is already undemocratic, weighted toward small, rural, white states. (The fifty senators who confirmed Justice Brett Kavanaugh represented just 44 percent of America.) Given Democrats’ weakness in white, rural areas, they’re unlikely to approach sixty senators anytime soon. And given the Trumped-up state of the GOP, red-state Republicans have no incentive to compromise on climate change, health care or anything else.

Democrats are running on audacious plans to address climate change and income inequality. But any big progressive reform will require institutional reform—small-d democratic reform, rather than binding your administration to a dysfunctional norm no one outside the Beltway cares about. If candidates can’t admit that, that tells me they’re not really serious about turning their agendas into actual policy.

One reply on “The Democratic Primary Is Full of Big Ideas—and Candidates Who Won’t Do What It Takes to Make Them Happen”

  1. re: “The Senate is already undemocratic, weighted toward small, rural, white states.” It’s no accident that smaller states get equal representation in the Senate, it’s on purpose. Tossing that out simply because you aren’t getting what you want out of it today is simplistic and immature.

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