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OPINION

Democratic presidential candidates don’t have a plan for Mitch McConnell — or 2020

Democrats don’t want a lecture on how easily legislation can be blocked by McConnell. But Democratic presidential wannabes aren’t doing voters a favor by pretending it isn’t the reality of American politics today.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pauses while speaking at a climate rally on Sunday in Iowa City, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pauses while speaking at a climate rally on Sunday in Iowa City, Iowa.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Practically every Democratic presidential candidate has a plan to fix America’s health care system, fight climate change, improve education outcomes, and reform the immigration system.

What they don’t have is the most important plan of all: how to get these legislative priorities through a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts talks about using the levers of executive power and scrapping the filibuster. Never mind that not even every Democratic senator supports this.

Joe Biden believes Republicans will simply come around and work with him as they allegedly have in the past. The history of the Obama years says the former vice president is kidding himself.

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But when it comes to being divorced from reality about the challenges in getting bills through Washington’s legislative gridlock, Senator Bernie Sanders has them all beat.

In an interview with The New York Times editorial board, Sanders sketched out a plan devoid of substance and reliant on hokum and snake oil.

After saying that his first 100 days in office would include introducing legislation that would fight climate change, pass Medicare for All, raise the minimum wage, rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and make public college and universities tuition-free, the Vermont senator was confronted with an obvious retort.

How?

Sanders insisted that he is a “little bit different than other candidates” in how he will deal with D.C. gridlock. “Not only will I be commander in chief,” says Sanders, "I will be organizer in chief.”

According to Sanders, he will travel to McConnell’s home state of Kentucky because “when the people of Kentucky are demanding to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour or health care for all or making their schools . . . tuition free, that’s the basis of negotiation. OK? . . . You make an offer to Mitch McConnell that he cannot refuse, and that is what the American people want to move in a different direction.”

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Later, when asked how he would get his Supreme Court nominees through a McConnell-controlled Senate he made an even more outlandish claim.

“I will be a different president,” says Sanders, “so don’t look at me within the context of history.” As President, Sanders would tell the American people that “we have by a 5-to-4 vote, this Supreme Court” that “gave us Citizens United” and other controversial decisions. Do “[t]he American people think it’s a good idea that billionaires can buy elections?” asked Sanders. "You know what, they don’t . . . and I will take that case to the American people.”

In the world where most political observers reside, none of this is remotely realistic. If Sanders were to become president and McConnell remained senate majority leader it means that McConnell won re-election to six more years in the senate. It also means that Democrats weren’t able to win four Senate seats to take control of the body. If Democrats can’t beat McConnell in Kentucky or elsewhere in red state America, then why would he cut a deal with Sanders to help a newly elected Democratic president fulfill his key campaign promises?

He won’t, and if history is any guide, McConnell and his fellow Republicans will pay no political price for it. In fact, based on the results of the 2010 and 2014 midterms, Republicans will benefit from such obstructionism.

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For years, many liberal Democrats have convinced themselves that if their party’s leaders would trek to red state America in order to put pressure on Republican senators or organize Americans behind their agenda, real progressive change could be possible.

But this fantasy masks a fundamental reality of American politics: that our political system is littered with minefields intended to stop the reformist impulses of politicians like Sanders.

For a few months, in 2009 and 2010, Democrats controlled the House, the White House, and had 60 votes in the Senate, and even with that enormous political advantage they could barely pass comprehensive health care reform into law. Once their majority slipped from 60 to 59, the Democrats struggled to overcome the GOP’s 41-seat stonewall.

The Democrats’ luck is not going to change if Sanders is elected president.

I am sympathetic to Sanders’ plight. Democratic voters want to hear about all the good things that will happen if their party wins the White House in 2020.

They certainly don’t want a lecture on how easily progressive legislation can be blocked by McConnell. But that is the reality of American politics today and Democratic presidential wannabes, like Sanders, are doing their voters no favor by pretending it isn’t.

If anything, it magnifies the importance of Democrats running a national campaign that includes focusing on potential Senate pickups in states like Maine, Colorado, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, and North Carolina. Indeed, it is striking to note that Sanders speaks of a political revolution and mobilizing voters and yet he had nothing to say about the importance of winning a Democratic majority in the Senate.

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Sanders, it seems, is more interested in sloganeering, than doing the hard work of electing Democrats to not just the Oval Office but to elected offices across the country.

The fact is, unless Democrats get serious about winning back the Senate and devoting the necessary resources and energy to the task, there will be no revolution come November 2020, even if Bernie Sanders is elected America’s next president.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.