Why New York's Democratic Debate Suddenly Seems A Lot More Important

Thanks to the economy and Donald Trump, a Democratic president might actually have a chance to get stuff done.
The Clinton and Sanders agendas might not be as hypothetical as we all thought.
The Clinton and Sanders agendas might not be as hypothetical as we all thought.
Scott Olson via Getty Images

The moderators at Thursday's Democratic presidential debate shouldn’t have a hard time thinking up questions. It’s been more than a month since Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders met on stage. Since that time, the campaign has become far more contentious -- with nasty arguments over everything from whether Clinton is “qualified” to whether Vermont’s lax gun laws caused crime in New York, which is the site of next week’s primary.

Still, the folks at CNN, which is hosting the debate, would do the public a favor by asking basic, straightforward questions about how Clinton and Sanders would address the economy, health care, and other key issues. Yes, they covered this material before — at length, back when the campaign was getting underway. But at that time, everybody was sure Republicans would hold at least one house of Congress, making it impossible for either Democrat to win more than token legislative victories. In other words, the agendas that Clinton and Sanders were proposing seemed largely theoretical.

Now the political environment has shifted, in ways that put the GOP at a bigger disadvantage. The phrase "Democratic House" no longer evokes laughter among mainstream political professionals. It's actually possible that Clinton or Sanders could get stuff done.

To be clear, a Democratic landslide remains unlikely. Clinton, the former secretary of state, and Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, each have serious political liabilities. Either could easily lose. And while Republicans will struggle to keep their Senate majority because they hold most of the vulnerable seats in this cycle, they are in much stronger position in the House, where they have a majority of 59 seats. Wiping that out -- i.e., flipping 30 districts from Republican to Democrat -- would require a win of historic proportions.

But there are three reasons to think such an outcome is sufficiently possible to take seriously. One is the economy, which political scientists have shown influences election outcomes strongly. March was the 73rd consecutive month of private sector job creation and wages, finally, are starting to pick up.

Another factor is President Barack Obama’s popularity. Last month, his job approval rating cracked 50 percent in the Gallup poll, something that hasn’t happened since 2013.

The third factor, naturally, is Donald Trump. He’s the most polarizing and, potentially, most unpopular major candidate in modern history. By dividing the party and depressing turnout, Trump could make it harder for other Republican candidates.

Even with Trump as the nominee, Republicans would be favorites to keep the House. Among other things, Democrats got a late start on recruiting candidates in potential swing districts.

But the forecasting pool from the political scientists at The Monkey Cage pegs Democratic prospects to be something like 1-in-4. The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, one of the most trusted observers of congressional races, wrote last month that “congressional Republicans are entering uncharted and potentially dangerous territory” -- and said the unpredictability of this election makes the prospect of a Democratic House impossible to dismiss.

Even if Democrats come up just short of a House majority, victories would still put pressure on Republicans -- maybe enough for a Democratic president to eke out a few policy victories, at least on issues like the minimum wage that are so popular even conservatives are reluctant to oppose them.

As a result, Thursday would be a perfect time to ask both Democratic candidates some tough questions -- not about verbal slights, real or intended, but about what they’d actually do if they find themselves sitting in the Oval Office next November, with a Congress capable of passing at least some meaningful legislation.

Here are just a few:

1) The Sanders health care plan would dramatically reduce incomes for not just the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, but likely for doctors and hospitals as well. Does Sanders think it’s possible to impose these cuts without creating massive disruption and shortages?

2) Clinton has proposed only modest tweaks to Obamacare. What about the people who say they need much more help covering premiums or paying for high out-of-pocket costs? And is there any hope her changes will move the country much closer to truly universal coverage?

3) Both candidates have called for massive expansions of early childhood programs, and cite evidence of successful pilot programs as proof that such initiatives can make dramatic differences in the lives of low-income kids. But these kinds of programs frequently yield weaker results when government tries them on a large scale. Given the huge investment these programs would require -- hundreds of billions of dollars -- isn’t this a big gamble?

4) Sanders has proposed raising the minimum wage nationally to $15 per hour. But even liberal economists like Princeton’s Alan Krueger, whose research provides the intellectual support for a higher wage, has said $15 might be too high in some parts of the country -- putting a big enough strain on business to reduce employment. Does Sanders disagree with that? Would he consider modifying his proposal to adjust the level locally?

5) Clinton has said her ties to Wall Street haven’t corrupted her and cites, as proof, her strong proposals for regulating the financial industry. But how can she assure voters that, as president, she’d actually pursue the proposals she’s made -- and hang tough in negotiations when her campaign contributors start lobbying for weaker legislation?

6) Sanders has called for programs that will require massive tax hikes, affecting the middle class as well the wealthy. Does he actually think this is politically feasible? If so, how does he imagine persuading moderate Democratic senators who shudder at the thought of even modest tax increases?

7) Clinton is a big fan of infrastructure spending, but her plan is about one-fourth the size of Sanders’, who has called for an investment of roughly $1 trillion over 10 years. If infrastructure is in such dire need of repair, and it has such benefits for the economy both in the short and long term, why not go big? Even if Congress is unlikely to approve such an expenditure, why not start with a high opening bid?

The list goes on. Of course, some of these questions might sound a little boring. Most of the underlying issues haven’t been in the news lately. But that’s precisely the point -- they should be. With just the right political breaks, they could become something more than figments of the liberal imagination.

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