Democrats respond to Republican nihilism by narrowing their field down to two tradition-bound institutionalists

Democrats respond to Republican nihilism by narrowing their field down to two tradition-bound institutionalists
Former Vice President Joe Biden shakes hand with Sen. Bernie Sanders. Screengrab courtesy of CBS.

Disclaimer: AlterNet does not endorse candidates but I personally support Sen. Bernie Sanders. The opinions expressed here are my own.  

Monday evening saw a brief outrage cycle on social media when a clip of Joe Biden ostensibly telling MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell that he would veto even a gradual approach to Medicare for All went viral.

Others parsed Biden's answer and came up with a different interpretation.

It is certainly not news that Joe Biden opposes Medicare for All, and, as many people pointed out, a Democratic Congress would never send a major piece of legislation to a Democratic president who would veto it. The White House coordinates with Congressional leaders throughout the legislative process.

But what made this kerfuffle especially pointless is that Democratic primary voters have narrowed a once-large field to two candidates who oppose killing the filibuster if Democrats hold the House and win control of the White House and Senate in November. There's certainly ideological space between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Biden, but both are committed institutionalists with deeply flawed theories of how to overcome Republicans' central belief that Democratic leadership is inherently illegitimate and the relentless obstruction that flows from that view.

Biden believes that he can work with moderate Democrats, which is probably true, but he also says Republicans' fever will break if Donald Trump is dealt a decisive defeat. According to Biden, they will come to rue their refusal to take governing seriously and be willing to cut deals across the aisle. He's gotten things done on a bipartisan basis in the past, and he promises that he can restore some measure of the comity that made our legislature more or less functional for much of his career.

Sanders promises that he will build a large, transpartisan movement of working people that will transcend partisanship and ideology, and bring so much pressure to bear on lawmakers that moderate Democrats and at least some Republicans will have no choice but to support his transformational agenda. (He also favors a "backdoor" mechanism for working around the filibuster: getting a Senate parliamentarian in place who would assent to passing complex legislation through the budget reconciliation process. This would be widely perceived as illegitimate and leave the filibuster in place for the next Republican majority to kill outright.)

Both of these theories share the same fundamental problems. We live in a heavily polarized society that's divided by culture as much as by politics, and the right has built a sprawling media network that keeps its consumers cocooned in an alternative set of facts. Geographic sorting and gerrymandering have resulted in a huge number of uncompetitive districts where Republicans rightly fear for their jobs if they wander even a small distance from conservative orthodoxy. They fear that demographic shifts will reduce them to a rump party of the South, and believe they have no other means of maintaining power other than by undermining American democracy. And rightly or wrongly, moderate Dems face deeply entrenched conventional wisdom that moving too far to the left will cost them their seat.

Most politicians' first concern is being re-elected, and neither Biden's collegiality nor Sanders's mass movement is going to change that equation. Killing veto-points--by getting rid of the filibuster and somehow addressing the Republican takeover of the federal judiciary--might.

According to NBC, "the progressive advocacy group Stand Up America is putting pressure on the last two major Democratic candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, to call for eliminating the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation in the Senate." Perhaps one or both candidates will reconsider their position. If not, there isn't much point in debating the merits of their health care plans or proposals to combat climate change or anything else that can't be accomplished through executive action.

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