Matt Yglesias has an important post this morning. He observes that Democrats are in the minority basically everywhere — in state houses, in governors’ mansions, and in the House of Representatives — and yet the party is engaged in a surreal debate over, as Yglesias puts it, “whether they should go a little bit to Obama’s left or a lot to his left” in Hillary or Bernie, respectively.
Yglesias drew some fire recently for a post that seems very connected to this latest one, wherein he noted that any successful Democratic president will have to operate mostly through executive orders, and that Hillary has shown herself particularly adept at handling those levers of power. The critics misunderstood him: he’s not happy about this. He’s on the record, indeed, with a post simply titled American democracy is doomed. The sort of (small-d) democracy wherein the executive branch has to operate mostly via executive order to get anything done is not a healthy one.
So at best, the Democrats can hope for little bits of change here and there, which will be stopped at the House of Representatives. Another option: a Republican president, Republican House, and Democratic Senate; along this avenue, the best Democrats can hope for is that the party gets to stop everything at the Senate door via the filibuster. (I’ll go on the record here: I want to see the filibuster ended, and I don’t want to see my party use it. I’d rather have representative democracy, wherein parties are elected and allowed to pass their agendas, and then voted out if the public doesn’t support that agenda. Instead we have the Republic of the Filibuster, wherein the public votes in a party and then is surprised when nothing is accomplished.) Worst, of course, would be a Republican lock on both houses of Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Supreme Court.
Yet when it still seemed like something that might happen, I had many conversations about whether Elizabeth Warren would run for president. Sure, I’d love a President Warren, and so would most everyone I know. The idea of a Warren presidency comes, unfortunately, from an infantile place: we expect that the president will solve all our problems. We expect an Aaron Sorkin presidency made flesh. Whereas in reality what the Democrats need is to build institutions. We need the steady accretion of power in the Senate. We need to undo gerrymandering in state houses. And yes, we need a president who knows exactly which executive-branch levers are available to her.
The president is not going to fix all our problems. The power of the presidency doesn’t operate through some invisible magic channel that only presidents have access to. And while I agree with Bernie that we’re not going to accomplish anything until Americans are organized, I’m doubtful that Bernie or Warren can singlehandedly orchestrate that long, hard work of organizing. The sooner we realize that a president is not going to be the liberal savior, the sooner we’ll start the grubby work of building liberal institutions up and down the ticket.
Hmm, I’m not convinced. I think that you underestimate the place of the next president as an institution builder and Yglesias’s claim that the Democratic Party has no plan is based on a misreading of the situation.
A Democratic president over the next four/eight years would mean two or three new Supreme Court Justices. The most likely retirees are Ginsberg, Scalia and Kennedy. Under a Democratic president there would be either four or three conservatives on the Supreme Court. This would end conservative control over the court (and even conservative ability to grant cert in the extreme case). Meanwhile, a conservative president would only have to replace the Court’s oldest member to deny liberal justices cert. So the Supreme Court’s make-up for the next decade depends delicately on the next election.
So what are Yglesias’s assumptions? “So-called ‘wave’ elections in which tons of incumbents lose are typically driven by a backlash against the incumbent president.” and an unstated but obvious median voter model (movement away from the median is “slightly bizarre”).
First, the chaos in the Republican Party/Tea Party/etc. seems like it could make This Time Different ™. There could be a backlash against them, even if the President is Democratic. The result that the Presidency is not magic depends sensitively to this no-wave assumption. I can’t argue against it without more knowledge than I have though.
However, these assumptions interact oddly. Since right now average income in the US is much higher than median income, people “ought to be” (whatever that means) happy to vote for a party of redistribution. So a leftward move is rational, na? The Democratic Party plan seems to be let themselves get elected to high office in the short run (i.e. in 2016), let inequality move preferences towards Democratic goals, take lower offices in the medium run (i.e. in 2018/2020), then implement the goals in the long run (by 2024). This plan can be criticized in many ways, but not for being irrational.