In laying down markers for this week’s debates, Democratic presidential hopefuls sometimes seemed to be playing a form of an old radio quiz show called “Can You Top This?” as they scrambled to outdo one another with elaborate plans for fixing national problems.
But Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” may be a more realistic characterization for their many proposals.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, seeking to expand her persistent 1% support, unveiled an elaborate climate change plan totaling $10 trillion in public and private spending, including a fixed carbon price and a tax on fossil fuel production.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, in danger of dropping into also-ran status after recent polling and fundraising declines, proposed revamping federal school programs to shrink funding disparities between white and nonwhite majority districts.
Front-runner Joe Biden, seeking to surmount criticism of his 1990s hardline anti-crime bill, outlined an array of criminal justice proposals aimed at coping with the disproportionate jailing of people of color.
Their intent was to give voters some sense of their priorities, though they have tended to illustrate the extent to which they generally agree.
By contrast, the two debates on CNN produced conflicts on issues like immigration and health care, including the contrast between the Medicare for All approach championed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren; plans by Biden, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and several others to build on Obamacare, rather than displace it; and Sen. Kamala Harris’ attempt to split the difference.
Beyond the specifics, they revealed an underlying philosophical gap between pleas by Klobuchar, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and several others for realism and those by Warren for “big structural changes” and Sanders “to transform the country.”
But as the moderates pointed out, the latter may be giving the overall debate an air of unreality with proposals more appealing to the Democratic primary electorate than the general election voters and suggestions the next president will have far more leeway than is likely to institute sweeping programmatic changes. That’s also true of some of the more sweeping proposals that other candidates made on the issues on which they agree.
Even if a Democrat defeats President Donald Trump, the political situation in 2021 is unlikely to be ripe for sweeping changes.
The next president’s initial priorities will almost certainly be to restore a proper presidential tone and undo as many damaging Trump actions as possible. That includes his international moves like abandoning the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement and squabbling with allies, and the domestic ones like reducing federal scrutiny from environmental and civil rights laws and regulations.
Three principal reasons make more sweeping steps unlikely.
First, even if the Democrats add a narrow Senate majority to control of the House, passing major legislation will be difficult. And the odds are still that Republicans will keep the Senate.
Second, Trump has used his executive powers to dramatically weaken a half-century of bipartisan efforts to regulate private industry and protect the civil and other rights of millions of Americans. The next president will have to devote substantial time and effort to fixing this.
Third, the next president will inherit a government where the ability to enact costly initiatives is severely constrained. That’s due to the persistent failure of both Democratic and Republican administrations, along with congressional majorities of both parties, to get a handle on federal spending and the burgeoning federal debt. Ironically, the last two GOP administrations made less effort to curb the deficit than the last two Democratic ones.
The current bipartisan funding measure, passed by the House and headed for Senate approval, exemplifies the problem. To pass the House, it added funds for domestic discretionary programs, and to secure Trump’s backing, it did the same for the military, in the process scrapping the last serious congressional effort to restrain spending. Along with the impact on prospective federal revenue from the 2017 GOP-passed tax cut, it ensures Trump’s tenure will end with a rising annual deficit, throwing the problem into the lap of his successor.
More importantly for the long run, it does nothing to curb the most important areas for getting a long-term handle on the federal fiscal situation, the so-called entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, where built-in requirements ensure continued increased spending, despite their increasingly shaky financial footing.
The next administration may need to face the fact that both Social Security and Medicare are on the verge of having to pay out more than they take in, meaning that, without significant reforms, Congress will have to use funds from an already constrained budget to pay legally required benefits.
Given that, and the prospect of continued partisan divisions in Congress, it is simply unrealistic to expect any new Democratic administration to undertake costly new programs. That’s something to keep in mind as the candidates continue to roll out policy plans and call, as Sanders has, for “a political revolution.”