The bidding war that has defined the Democratic presidential race reached its apogee of absurdity earlier this month when Bernie Sanders had to explain that, no, he had no plans to erase voters’ credit card bills.
Questioned about his proposal to wipe away $81 billion in personal medical debt in a New Hampshire interview, the Vermont socialist told the Concord Monitor and NHTalkRadio.com: “I don’t believe we wipe out credit card debt. You want to buy... a yacht, and you go in debt, hey, that’s your decision.”
It is easy to understand the pent-up demands of Democratic voters. In this century, the only time that the Democrats have controlled both the White House and Congress was during the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
While passing the Affordable Care Act by the narrowest of margins in 2010 remains Obama’s most enduring legacy, it also played a major role in dethroning Nancy Pelosi as speaker in that year’s midterm elections. As a result, Obama’s powers mostly were limited to foreign policy and executive orders during the final six years of his presidency.
Thwarted in their dreams, the 2020 Democrats — exemplified by Elizabeth Warren — have put together more plans than the Allies drew up in preparation for D-Day.
Whether it’s Warren’s $2.75 trillion wealth tax, Sanders’ $16.3 trillion Green New Deal, Pete Buttigieg’s proposal to expand the size of the Supreme Court or Kamala Harris’ belief that she could, if necessary, enact far-reaching gun control measures through executive orders, the Democratic presidential candidates do not lack for ambition.
And that is in addition to the increasingly high-decibel but hard-to-follow disputes that have punctuated every debate about whether to end private health insurance under “Medicare for All” plans.
The problem with all this is not the aspiration to patch the major gaps in our health care system, confront gun violence or deal with the glaring inequities in the you-win-I-lose economy. Rather, it is the inescapable reality that — barring a sea change in American politics — most of these goals unlikely are to be fully achieved in the coming decade.
If a Democrat wins the White House in 2020, the biggest job facing him or her would be cleaning up the muck from four years of Donald Trump’s presidency. Repairing the willful damage to national institutions (from the FBI to the weather bureau) will be matched only by the desperate need to reassure the world that America is again a loyal ally and a beacon of hope for those battling despotism.
On election night 2020, congressional Democrats would be trading high-fives if they won the necessary three or four seats needed to create a 50-50 Senate. Under that optimistic scenario, the new Democratic vice president could never stray far from Capitol Hill because the VP’s vote would be needed constantly to break party-line ties.
With the Democrats’ working majority dependent on centrists like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, there would be no appetite for vast legislative restructuring of the economy, energy consumption or health care. The best that a new Democratic president could hope for in the short run would be incremental changes.
Remember: Trying to do too much too fast caused not only Obama, but also Bill Clinton, to lose control of the House after two years in the Oval Office.
The problem right now is that most of the leading Democrats (even Joe Biden) are running on ambitious legislative agendas that would offer high drama on Capitol Hill in 2021 but little chance of short-term legislative victory.