How I Got the Democratic Primary Very, Very Wrong

The contenders.

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Back in October, I wrote an article about the election titled “Why Republican Economic Ideas Matter This Election—and Democratic Ideas Don’t.” The thesis didn’t seem particularly controversial at the time. Even if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders ultimately won the presidency in November, I argued, they would in all likelihood still face a House of Representatives controlled by antagonistic Republicans, who would gleefully smother any remotely progressive legislation in the crib. An electoral climate conducive to a Republican victory, on the other hand, would probably let the GOP keep its hold on both houses of Congress, giving them the power to pass massive tax and spending cuts through the power of budget reconciliation.

“Sanders and Clinton are basically running for the privilege of defending the surprisingly fragile progress Democrats have made building the welfare state,” I concluded. “Their thoughts on how to enhance it further aren’t of much consequence.”

This was wrong. And in the interest of pundit transparency, I wanted to take an opportunity to admit as much. 

It’s not that I think Democrats are suddenly poised to win back control of Capitol Hill. Barring a Trump-triggered electoral landslide that buries them back in the minority, Republicans will probably still walk away from November with control of the House. That will make it all but impossible to pass any significant liberal legislation.  

But while that may be, the race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton has given rise to an epoch-defining policy debate. It has forced Democrats to argue over fundamental questions about their approach to financial regulation, health care, economic equality, and more—to weigh the merits of Clintonian incrementalism against Sanders’ calls for revolution. Do we avert the next financial crisis by cutting big banks down to size, ending Wall Street as we know it? Or do we use other, subtler tools to limit risk across the financial sector? Should Democrats try to expand insurance coverage by building on the Affordable Care Act? Or should Democrats follow their hearts and push for a national single-payer program? Is it time for a $15 federal minimum wage? Or should we push it to $12, and let richer cities and states go higher?

Meanwhile, the reality that either candidate could well face an unfriendly Republican Congress has forced them to sharpen some of their arguments, and think carefully about executive and regulatory power. We have watched Democrats spend time during nationally televised debates discussing which specific sections of Dodd-Frank could theoretically be used to break up banks, and when that might be appropriate. A time traveler from 2011 would find that unreal.

Democrats aren’t done struggling with these questions. But whatever the final answers are, they will surely be further to the ideological left than anybody might have imagined even one or two years ago. As my colleague Isaac Chotiner wrote early Friday morning, Clinton may win the nomination, but Sanders has managed to define the terms of debate and push his opponent in a more progressive direction. And by capturing the hearts of young voters, he may be building a future Democratic party in his own, Democratic-Socialist mold.

And that has consequences for the present. Every single ambitious Democratic politician eyeing a presidential run in four to eight years is undoubtedly watching the current race and thinking about how he or she can tap into the energy Sanders has unleashed, or at least keep from getting vanquished by it. That will affect how states are governed—New York’s Andrew Cuomo has practically spun on his heels trying to make a fast left turn of late—and presumably Congress, where I imagine Elizabeth Warren (and perhaps Bernie, too) is set to become an even more enormous power broker.  

So, again, I was wrong. And the reason why is fairly straightforward: Like a lot of writers, I never expected Sanders to attract the kind of support he has. I expected him and Clinton to debate. I didn’t expect them to debate for the soul of the party. But they have.