Presidential candidates typically try to sell themselves as superheroes whose powers will magically cure our national ills. Rarely do they remind us that power is widely dispersed in our federal system, and that presidents are compelled to share it with the typically disputatious members of Congress.
So it was refreshing on Tuesday night, during the Democratic debate, when a citizen questioner reminded the candidates of a certain inconvenient reality: “President Obama has had a difficult time getting Republicans to compromise on just about every agenda. How will you approach this going forward, and will it be any different?”
Let’s face it, there’s virtually no way that a new Democratic House can be swept into power with a Democratic president. Stu Rothenberg, the nonpartisan Washington analyst who has been handicapping House elections since forever, has said of the Democrats, “You’d need a magnifying glass, probably even a microscope, to find the party’s chances of taking control.”
So how would a President Clinton - or, far less likely, a President Sanders - manage to get anything done? Executive actions can only achieve so much. How would they coax major legislation through such a rabidly hostile House?
“Now, in my view, the only way we can take on the right-wing Republicans, who are, by the way, I hope will not continue to control the Senate and the House when one of us is elected president - but the only way we can get things done is by having millions of people coming together,” Bernie Sanders said. “If we want free tuition at public colleges and universities, millions of young people are going to have to demand it, and give the Republicans an offer they can’t refuse. If we want to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, workers are going to have to come together and look Republicans in the eye, and say, ‘We know what’s going on. You vote against us, you are out of your job.’”
First of all, if by some miracle Sanders were to win the presidency, he’d be savaged by the House Republicans. You think they’d cooperate with a “democratic socialist?” Heck, they’re so unhinged right now that they view Paul Ryan as a bleeding heart. And their presidential frontrunner-demagogue, Donald Trump, set the bar on Bernie yesterday by calling him a “communist.”
Second, Bernie’s response was painfully naive. House Republicans, a huge share of whom reside in safe scarlet-red districts, won’t quake in their boots at the prospect of “millions of young people coming together” to demand free college tuition. Most young people don’t vote, especially in congressional elections. The only thing that frightens House Republicans is primary challenges from the right. If they were to embrace free tuition and a $15 wage, the right would put their heads on a pike.
And how would Hillary Clinton handle those radical House members? Her message was mixed.
Early in the debate, she touted herself as “a progressive who likes to get things done ... to find common ground.” She said that, as a senator, she was “even dealing with Republicans who never had a good word to say about me, honestly. But we found ways to work together.” But toward the end of the debate, when she was asked “Which enemy are you most proud of?” she replied: “Probably the Republicans.”
I can’t fault her for the latter. Republicans and conservatives started sliming her in 1992, and nothing has changed. Last year, when someone threw a shoe at her head, the nutcase righties said she engineered the incident to gain sympathy; when she bailed from a Benghazi hearing due to illness, Karl Rove speculated that she was covering up brain damage. Heck, on Wednesday, a second Republican lawmaker confirmed that the “special” Benghazi committee was set up to take her down.
But we’re left to wonder: Would she try to “work together” (as she said) with the people who hate her? Or would she proudly “welcome their hatred” (as FDR said about Republicans) and try to muscle them? This crucial governing question deserves to be explored further in the ensuing debates.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at email@example.com