Can the Next Democratic Presidency Be Truly Transformative?

Oliver Contreras/Sipa via AP Images

The presidential seal on the South Lawn of the White House

In 2008, speaking to the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal, Barack Obama made his ambitions clear. "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America, in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama said. "He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it."

At the time, you may recall, Obama's primary opponent Hillary Clinton and some other Democrats were outraged, for both the jab at Bill Clinton and the seeming compliment to Reagan. But Obama was absolutely right. No serious person would argue that the Clinton's presidency was as transformative as Reagan's had been, whatever the former's accomplishments. And unfortunately, for all his charisma, political skill, and thoughtful policy work, Obama too failed to change the trajectory of the country in the way he had hoped.

In so many ways, the place we're at now is that not that different from where we were in 2008, whether it's in our political divides, the relative strength of key political forces, or the ideological ground on which policy debates play out.

That's a source of frustration and regret for even those Democrats who admire Obama greatly. Now add in the horror of the Trump presidency, and it's no surprise that there's an appetite for something truly revolutionary in the next Democratic president.

While we can't rerun history, that thirst might not have been as intense were an ordinary Republican president right now. It's less about the specifics of the Trump presidency (awful though they are) than in the simple fact that Donald Trump, one of the most corrupt, immoral, and personally repugnant human beings this nation has ever produced, sits in the Oval Office. After that, a regression to the mean seems wholly inadequate.

Trump's presidency is not only a daily dumpster fire, it has also been an education in the character of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, one with profound lessons for the near future. Outside of a tiny cadre of "never Trump" Republicans, the party has embraced Trump with an unalloyed fervor that few could have imagined in 2016 when so many of them were expressing consternation that he had taken over their party.

Today they excuse his endless lying, they cheer his authoritarianism, and they provide him with the embarrassing praise he so desperately desires (at a recent Republican Jewish event, former Senator Norm Coleman told the story of the Trump presidency as the Passover story, with Trump in the place of God himself). Evangelical Christians, supposedly so concerned with morality, have bowed down before him as to no president before. They have revealed themselves in all their shallow hypocrisy and bad faith.

So if the experience of the Obama presidency wasn't enough to convince you that Republicans will never join a Democrat in policy compromise, surely it is more than clear now. Which is why some of the candidates are saying that unusual measures must be taken, like eliminating the filibuster, if the next Democratic president is to get anything done.

But that in itself, even if it produces legislative victories, will not be enough. Which is why many of them are considering a fundamental reorienting of the rules governing politics to eliminate the most essential anti-democratic features of our system, all of which just happen to aid in the Republican Party's successful project to rule the country despite holding the support of a minority of the voters. That includes gerrymandering, the Electoral College, voter suppression, and the lack of voting rights for residents of the District of Columbia.

If a Democratic president could do everything the candidates are proposing, she'd be pretty transformational. And it might be that policy victories alone would be enough to do the job of changing how Americans think about the responsibilities of government, and what should and shouldn't be considered reasonable approaches to problem-solving.

But something else is required, something that both FDR and Reagan made a concerted and successful effort to accomplish. They not only moved policy, they delegitimized the other side's entire approach to governing.

Roosevelt, enabled by the crisis in which the country found itself when he was elected in 1932, not only enacted an ambitious agenda but ridiculed the conservative idea that a cautious, hands-off approach could serve the pressing needs of the country. Likewise, Reagan said, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem," and laid the blame for every social ill at the feet of Democrats who were too generous toward minorities and the poor. They both understood that discrediting their opponents' approach to governing was essential to their own success.

Now ask yourself: Who among the current crop of presidential candidates looks likely to embark on a project that incorporates that idea as an essential goal?

There are a few candidates who certainly don't. It would be utterly foreign to Joe Biden, whose (soon-to-be) campaign is built on the idea that he can reach out to blue-collar white guys who like Donald Trump. Biden has no discernable policy ambitions, and it's hard to see what his presidency would accomplish apart from keeping a Republican from the White House for a while (which is not nothing, of course).

Other candidates like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Julián Castro, or John Hickenlooper might have some good ideas of varying degrees of ambition, but haven't yet articulated anything resembling a sweeping ideological project. The only two who have are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Sanders focuses on economic inequality, while Warren has a critique of the current system that focuses on both economics and politics; she has also assembled a broad and growing set of policy proposals meant to redistribute both wealth and power.

Both share a healthy contempt for the conservative governing philosophy. It isn't that many of the other candidates don't agree, but they haven't yet put that ideological distinction at the center of their rhetoric.

Whatever reluctance they might be feeling isn't surprising, since so much of our debate condemns undue "partisanship" and encourages politicians to at least claim they want to reach across the aisle and find common ground. But Democratic voters would do well to ask themselves: What will it be like eight years from now if this candidate becomes president. Will we just reset again with another Republican and fight the same fights in the same way? Or will the country and its politics be fundamentally altered?

It isn't easy to know the answer. But asking the question is a good place to start.

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