Democratic debate postscript: What about Congress?

     (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, file)

    (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, file)

    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?”

    Great question! Because, 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.”

    Democrats need to score a net gain of 30 House seats — something they haven’t achieved, in a national election year, since landslide Lyndon Johnson flashed his massive coattails in 1964. Their biggest hurdle in 2016 will be the dearth of competitive districts – thanks to gerrymandering at the state level, where GOP lawmakers are dominant — but that’s a long story for another day. In short, the Republicans are likely to sustain their death grip on the House, despite their current disastrous dysfunction.

    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?

    Hostile indeed. As veteran congressional analysts Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann have written, “The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme … scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” In other words, the House GOP is now the captive of its trolls. And as evidenced by the Boehner-McCarthy implosion, it can’t even govern itself.

    It’s more plausible that the Republicans could lose the Senate — some GOPers who won in the 2010 tea party wave are up for re-election in states that vote Democratic in presidential years (Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, Illinois’ Mark Kirk, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson) — but even if that chamber flips, there’s no way Democrats can craft a filibuster-proof majority. There, too, a new Democratic president would have to reckon with the dispersal of power.

    So, on Democratic debate night, the citizen questioner was smart to ask, “Will it be any different?” She directed the question to Bernie Sanders. This was his answer:

    “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. 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.'”

    Oh man.

    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, just yesterday, 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.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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