Democrats: Your Nominee Doesn’t Matter
(And Why That’s Actually Good News)
For Democrats pre-gaming this week’s presidential primary debates, or really any of the upcoming ones in the months ahead, consider this: it really doesn’t matter whom you nominate.
To be sure, your choice does matter in terms of winning (and I’ve strenuously argued that Democrats should base their decision only on who shows the skills and discipline needed to win, and 0% on extraneous issues). What I mean is that it truly does not matter in terms of what you want to accomplish.
Why? Because almost all of what a President achieves these days happens because she or he assumes control of the federal agencies – the most powerful force ever devised in human history for a country’s economic innovation, as well as the de facto arbiter of almost all policy. This has become all the more true because of Congress’ utter dysfunction (combined with Mitch McConnell, who has given up any pretense of motivation beyond pure partisanship), which caused President Obama to give up on Congress and turn to the power of his “pen and phone”, i.e., making policy through the agencies.
Yes, a 21st Century President does other things, or tries to. But for almost all of those, the differences among the Democratic candidates are minor or unknowable (would Amy Klobuchar’s choice of a Supreme Court Justice make substantially better rulings than Beto O’Rourke’s? Can we definitively say that Pete Buttigieg’s judgement in a foreign policy crisis would be better than Kamala Harris’? Would a divided Congress be suddenly moved to pass more progressive and effective legislation under a President Biden than President Warren?).
By contrast, consider the agencies that administer our federal government. They employ 2 million Americans (counting civilians only) who directly manage 1 in every 5 dollars in our economy. And the impact of those dollars on Americans’ prosperity, safety, health, and well-being ripple and multiply much further, as shown in the chart below, since they serve as the backbone of major economic sectors (transportation, housing, military), drive business innovation (science and technical research, education, energy, agriculture), and offset the economic squeeze on working Americans (housing, veterans benefits, health care).
Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk brilliantly (and, somehow, entertainingly) describes just how important these functions are to protecting American lives and driving American business success, as well as how the incompetence and neglect of the Trump administration has driven them nearly into a ditch. By populating the leadership of federal agencies with a collection of indifferent bumblers (a man who couldn’t recall the existence of his agency put in charge of protecting our nuclear arsenal and electric grid) or corporate raiders on the make (a man who wants to privatize all weather forecasts, including tornado warnings, to his own company so that he can charge high fees put in charge of the agency that develops and provides them to the public for free), the administration has created enormous risks for Americans’ safety and squandered the number one source of American business and economic success: government data and research that fuels innovation.
But it’s actually much worse than that – it’s not just what the agencies haven’t done, it’s what they have done. For any Democrat looking for a caffeine substitute to get your blood running in the morning, just Google “things Trump did while you weren’t looking”. The most comprehensive of these lists is here from 2017, but any of the recent vintages provide more of the same.
Here are just two easy examples. Climate: Trump’s appointees ended Obama’s most important carbon-fighting plan, and have been rolling back key environmental protections (83 of them as of today) and climate data availability so fast we can’t keep up. Health care: Trump’s appointees removed critical market supports for insurers and other mechanisms to keep markets functioning and costs down.
The list goes on across every single agency and function of the government: a full frontal attack on every significant item on the Democratic policy wish list.
In fact, the only thing saving us (from Democrats’ perspective) from more ruinous outcomes has been the President’s sheer incompetence in getting more of his people running the show, or confirming anyone with any ability to the agencies. Many longtime professionals in the federal government have been holding on for dear life, while top Trump personnel have resisted or refused his more insane or illegal directives, or been hamstrung in carrying them out by protracted “Acting” status.
But a second term would collapse those firewalls.
So the bottom line is that simply by bringing in a full slate of competent people who are generally aligned with a Democratic President’s agenda – and putting a stop to the rot and active destruction going on within the agencies – any prospective Democratic President would instantaneously accomplish more for that agenda than you will hear about in a hundred Democratic debates (side note: Democrats and all Americans would actually be better off with the people brought in by just about any other Republican president).
So yes, leadership matters. Judgement matters. Empathy matters. And those are wonderful things to hope for in a President. But the good news for Democrats is that in 2020, you don’t need to find someone with your ideal blend of those qualities: anyone who gets you a win gets you most of what you want.