In Wednesday night's rollicking Democratic debate, there was one particularly telling moment that had nothing to do with desperate candidates jockeying to be heard and remembered. About two-thirds of the way through, moderator Chuck Todd asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of the party's leading contenders, how she would handle a Republican Senate led by America's creepy arch-villain. "Do you have a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell if you don't beat him in the Senate?" Todd asked playfully, referring to Warren's signature campaign line.
"I do," she said, to thunderous applause. A million Warrenistas sat up in anticipation of the straight dope.
She proceeded to artfully dodge the question. "We are a democracy, and the way a democracy is supposed to work is the will of the people matters." She steered the conversation toward her campaign theme of out-of-control economic elites, because she doesn't have a plan for a Senate lead by Mitch McConnell. No one does. With all due respect to Warren, there is no good answer to that ridiculous question. "The fight still goes on," if Republicans hold the Senate, was the best she could muster.
Stoic determination in the face of electoral tragedy does have the virtue of being true, and necessary and inspiring. But a Democratic president, whether that is Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, facing down a Republican-held Senate will be an unmitigated governing disaster, an ugly spectacle of paralysis and finger-pointing that won't end well for anyone. There will be no student loan relief, no public option (let alone Medicare-for-All), no paid family leave, and no reckoning with a world that is rapidly warming. Not only would that Democratic president be confined to executive orders and foreign policy, they would face a nonstop grinder of investigations and obstruction in McConnell's Senate.
There were candidates Wednesday night who wished to elide this difficult reality. Former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, looking to muscle his way into the moderate lane, said, "We need to get things done ... All the big transformative things we've ever done in this country's history have happened when huge majorities of the American people get behind them." ObamaCare would like a word, but whatever. He offered no insight into how he would convince a radicalized Republican bloc to play along with his Democratic agenda, because he doesn't have any. He knows he's singing Goodnight Bipartisan Moon to the dwindling number of people who believe that this sort of thing is possible.
When moderator Rachel Maddow then asked New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio what he would do if McConnell held up a Supreme Court nominee, as the GOP did to Barack Obama after Antonin Scalia died in 2016, he first redirected the conversation to guns before finally circling back. "If the Democratic party stopped acting like the party of elites," he said, GOP senators would have to vote for his nominee. Faced with the same question, Sen. Cory Booker touted the recent criminal justice reform bill as evidence that he could bend the Republicans toward his justice arc. "I've been able to get things accomplished."
And that was the end of the conversation about Mitch McConnell, as the moderators moved onto more comfortable rhetorical territory. It is understandable that even before a massively Democratic-leaning audience, candidates would want to genuflect to Washington's dead bipartisanship. No one wanted to demoralize the audience by imagining the Mary Shelley-level horror story of defeating President Trump in 2020 only to be thwarted by the unapologetically smug visage of Kentucky's senior senator and his retrograde allies.
It's not hard to see why everyone is in avoidance mode here. No president has been inaugurated facing a hostile partisan Senate since George H.W. Bush in 1988, a year situated in an era so different from our own that it might as well have been the Pleistocene.
Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all started out their terms with their parties in full control of Congress and thus at least theoretically capable of pursuing policy change. Only Obama, however, was substantially harmed by a hostile Senate minority, with McConnell infamously claiming that his goal was to make America's first black president a one-termer. McConnell failed to take out Obama in 2012, but he inflicted massive damage, holding up nominees and stalling out the Democratic policy agenda again and again, even when it was popular with the general public. And when McConnell's Republicans won the Senate in 2014, it brought the Obama presidency to an effective end.
A totally human impulse to avoid struggling with a nightmare scenario, though, is no excuse for not making a full-throated case for taking the U.S. Senate next year. Early Democratic debate watchers are not the kind of people who are invested in the fairy tale of aisle-crossing and Gang of Eighting and Third Way wish fulfillment fantasies. They need to be told the truth.
The answer to the McConnell question should have been, "We must win the Senate, period." One of the debaters could have scored some easy points by looking someone like Beto O'Rourke in the eye and telling him to run for the Senate instead of for president. "We need you as a senator more than we need you here tonight, congressman," Warren could have said. The audience should have been exhorted to action.
Why? Mitch McConnell is the enemy of progress, surely the chief human impediment to facing down the looming climate crisis and the country's spiraling inequality problem. He and his Senate majority will do everything they can to prevent another Democrat from ever winning the presidency and, should that dark project fail, he is committed to destroying that person's agenda and life.
If Democrats don't invest as much time into winning the Senate and holding the House as they do in the presidential race, they are wasting their time, and ours.