The Great Paradox of the Democratic Presidential Race

There is no shortage of bold, liberal ideas from the candidates that have little chance of getting past Congress.

The U.S. Capitol building stands prior to U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on January 24, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It was a sunny Wednesday morning near the Capitol last week when Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, standing before a crowd of low-wage workers on strike, led a rally to make his case for a $15 minimum wage. Some in the protest waved placards of President Barack Obama's signature "HOPE" poster—the text morphed into "HELP" because "we need more than the minimum."

"The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised to a living wage," the self-described socialist senator from Vermont proclaimed.

Just across the street loomed a building emblematic of the reasons why Sanders' lofty campaign promises probably will remain just that: In the Capitol, Republicans have for years blocked a more modest wage hike to $10.10 per hour—even when Democrats ran the Senate.

The juxtaposition illustrates a core dynamic in the Democratic presidential primary. While the candidates compete over who can produce the ideas that most satisfy the party's base, the proposals they are offering to do so face a stark reality. Hardly any of them are likely to be approved by Congress, where Republicans have an almost iron-clad grip on the House of Representatives for the foreseeable future.

"You're not gonna get a national minimum wage [increase]. You're not going to get free college tuition. You're not going to get those things," said Steve Bell, a former top Senate Republican budget aide. "This is strictly, 'Get me elected and we'll see what we do then.'"

Supporters at a Bernie Sanders rally for a higher minimum wage carried a revised version of an iconic Obama campaign poster.

Supporters at a Bernie Sanders rally for a higher minimum wage carried a revised version of an iconic Obama campaign poster.

Photographer: Sahil Kapur/Bloomberg

Sanders and Democratic rival Martin O'Malley, both being trounced in the polls by front-runner Hillary Clinton, are each trying to gain on her by advancing ambitious agendas designed to appeal to progressives who believe Obama has been a disappointment. These include a $15 federal minimum wage, making college debt-free for students, and breaking up the country's biggest financial institutions. Though these proposals are all dead on arrival in Congress, they have been met with enthusiasm by the party's activist base.

"Progressives are looking for a race to the top among Democratic candidates on big, bold, economic populist ideas," Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement, the purpose of which was to praise O'Malley's proposal for criminal prosecution of bankers. For good measure, he also hailed progressive icon and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren's relentless battles against Wall Street.

Meanwhile, Clinton, who has been rebuilding ties with the left that frayed in 2008, has steered away from some of those ideas and taken a more pragmatic progressive approach similar to Obama's: backing center-left proposals that unite Democrats and are popular with the general public. But many of her legislative proposals—an undefined minimum wage hike, equal pay for women, paid family leave, and LGBT nondiscrimination in the workplace—are also more aspirational than likely to pass a Republican Congress, at least if recent history is any indication.

Along with filibustering a minimum wage hike to $10.10 per hour in 2014, Senate Republicans blocked a bill aimed at bridging the pay gap between men and women that same year. House Republicans have refused to consider either proposal. Then there are items that have passed a Democratic-led Senate, only to die in the House, including immigration reform and a measure to ban workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals. Far from beefing up financial regulations, Republicans have been dedicated to dismantling the Dodd-Frank law and have gotten Democrats to do away with some pieces of it.

For O'Malley, who is struggling to gain any traction in the polls, winning the support of progressive activists is critical. After Clinton resisted endorsing a $15 wage floor recently, he responded with a statement declaring that "leadership is about forging public consensus—not following it." Asked about the congressional roadblock such a proposal would likely face, O'Malley's spokeswoman Haley Morris said his "ambitious policy proposals" include "a mix of executive and congressional actions."

Over the weekend, Clinton released a climate change blueprint that called for "a path towards deep decarbonization by 2050," a more cautious version of O'Malley's call to zero out all fossil fuels by 2050. Before that, Clinton was heckled by progressives about how far she'd go on the issue, and she signaled she wasn't going to pander to them with impractical proposals. "I have said in this campaign I am going to tell you what I believe. Some people may like it and some people may not like it," she said while campaigning in New Hampshire on June 16. "I totally respect the passion and urgency."

The clearest impact of a Democratic victory in 2016 would be the preservation of Obama's signature achievements including Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, executive actions on immigration and the Iran nuclear deal. Clinton and her rivals have all vowed to protect—if not also expand on—those initiatives. There's also the possibility that the next president will appoint several Supreme Court justices, along with many trial court and appellate judges.

Paul Begala, a former top aide to Bill Clinton who is now advising a pro-Hillary super-PAC, was optimistic about her ability to get things done under a Republican Congress.

"Presidential campaigns make and remake the politics in this country by taking issues and putting them on the national agenda," he said, pointing out that Ronald Reagan advanced his agenda under Democratic House majorities as big or bigger than the current Republican majority. "He was proposing an economic platform which was very, very different from the Democratic platform. And yet he got it through... You can make a case that there's a pretty strong likelihood that when you elect a president on certain issues those issues likely get passed. I saw it when I worked for President Clinton. The Republicans in the Clinton era were more ideological and hateful than they are today. I mean, they impeached him."

And what about O'Malley and Sanders? Begala argued that their presence will ultimately help Clinton, should she hold on to her lead and become the nominee, by energizing and registering progressive voters. He also said the Democratic field is largely on the same page.

"I just don't think there's that much distance, even between Hillary and Sanders," he said. The primary "has me cheering. Honestly. Because I believe at the end of the day Democrats have a much greater capacity to come together, and the issues Sanders is raising are issues that I can sell in the middle of the country."

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