Big Promises

What It Would Take for Bernie to Deliver

By David Read

In his recent book, Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond, E. J. Dionne argues that the anger evinced by today's Republican electorate is a result of a long series of impossible promises made by Republican politicians. For many years, Republican candidates have gotten the faithful ginned up with plans to, for example, repeal the Affordable Care Act, end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, or stop illegal immigration from Mexico, when they know full well that they lack the votes and/or the constitutional authority to make these promises a reality.

This year, it's Bernie Sanders' zealous young supporters who are swallowing impossible expectations. Should Sanders manage to win both the nomination and the general election, you can expect that disappointment, bitterness, and disillusionment will soon be forthcoming.

With regard to the issue of health care reform, for instance, the debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton has come down to whether to go all-in for a single-payer system, or instead to tweak and improve the Affordable Care Act so as to offer provide health care to the millions who are still uninsured. The useful question to ask here is: What would have to happen in Congress to get a single-payer system established as law?

To pass any health care reform more far-reaching that the Obama Administration's Affordable Care Act, the Democratic Party would have to, at a bare minimum, achieve a majority in the House of Representatives (in the 2016 elections, this would mean a net gain of 30 seats), and get a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate: 60 Democratic Senators. In Congress, the Democrats would have to have a miraculous election day next November, re-electing every single incumbent Democrat while picking off 30 seats currently in Republican hands. In the Senate, the Democrats currently have 45 seats, and one Independent who caucuses with the Democrats (Bernie Sanders). Thirty-four Senate seats will be contested in 2016; ten are currently held by Democrats. The Democratic Party would have to retain all ten and gain 14 of the 24 that are currently in Republican hands. Right now, of those 24, there are 11 Senate races where there is at least a reasonable opportunity for the Democratic Party to win (John McCain in Arizona and Richard Burr in North Carolina are among those vulnerable 11). So, even if the Democrats were able to run the table with these 11 Senate seats, they would still need to take three "safe" Republican Senate seats. Which three will a party that may well be led by a "Democratic Socialist" have to unseat? Perhaps Richard Shelby in Alabama? How about John Thune in South Dakota, or James Lankford in Oklahoma?

Ain't gonna happen. But even if it did, our servants in Congress are always scared to death about re-election challenges. Recall what happened in 2008, when many Democratic candidates got swept up in the Obama wave and won election in districts that traditionally trended Republican. These reluctant debutants almost immediately began undermining the President's positions on cap and trade and on healthcare reform. Thus, in addition to a miracle Congressional election, the Democrats would also need a few "insurance seats" to make up for the defections of those in Congress who might get cold feet.

There appear to be many young voters who view President Obama as a bit of a disappointment. They decry his failure to become, to use the term coined by Peter Northouse, a "transformative leader." I hate to break it to these young Sanderistas, but the Obama Administration, particularly in the first two years, was, as far as the advancement of progressive policy is concerned, about as good as they are likely to get anytime soon. The Affordable Care Act passed only by the absolute slimmest of possible majorities in the Senate. In 2009, the Democrats had, for a brief time, 60 Senate seats. Just a few short weeks after the bill passed the Senate, that number fell to 59 with the election of Republican Scott Brown to fill the Massachusetts Senate seat made vacant by the death of Ted Kennedy. Clearly, given what Karl Marx would term the "material conditions" then extant, the Affordable Care Act -- though it was far less radical than, for example, the health care reform program proposed by Richard Nixon in February 1974 -- was the most far-reaching health care reform possible to make into law in 2009/2010. It was certainly far more radical than any health care reform package that it would be possible to enact in 2017.

For 2017, the plausible best-case scenario for progressives would be: a Democrat in the White House, or an Independent Senator who happens to currently caucus with the Democrats; an (unlikely) slim majority in the House of Representatives; and somewhere between 51 and 57 Democratic Senators. The worst-case scenarios, and there are many, start with a President Rubio, President Cruz, or President Trump. The best-case scenario would likely give us pretty much exactly what we have enjoyed for the last five years: legislative gridlock and perverse obstruction by the Republican minority, ameliorated only by the occasional highly-contested administrative decision. The worst-case scenario gives us, among other things, another Samuel Alito to replace Ruth Bader-Ginsburg.

Published February 10th, 2016

David Read is a lapsed Political Science Ph.D. candidate who currently resides in Chicago.