Many of today’s Democratic candidates are proposing ambitious progressive ideas that they hope to convince American voters are necessary reforms to fix many of America’s problems. As a liberal, I think these progressive proposals are necessary. But it’s not enough for Democrats win the Presidency for these ambitious programs to be enacted. The Democrats also need to win majorities in both houses of Congress. They’ll need to keep their majority in the House of Representatives and they’ll need 60 Senators to overcome Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s obstructionist tactics. If neither happens, then a Democratic President will have to scale back his or her ambitions.
The two greatest eras of progressive legislation were the New Deal era and the Great Society era. In 1935, when the most radical stage of the New Deal legislation was passed, there were 322 Democrats and 103 Republicans in the House of Representatives and 68 Democrats and 25 Republicans in the Senate. In 1965, at the height of the Great Society legislation, there were 295 Democrats and 140 Republicans in the House of Representatives and 68 Democrats and 32 Republicans in the Senate. At that time both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party were more ideologically diverse, with moderate and conservative Democrats and moderate and liberal Republicans crossing party lines often to vote for bipartisan legislation. That sort of ideological diversity in both parties is gone.
Both Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were shrewd political strategists who knew how to get legislation passed through Congress. Roosevelt and Johnson had good working relationships with the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate and they were blessed with progressive legislators like Robert Wagner, Ted Kennedy, Robert La Follette, Mike Mansfield, and Birch Bayh.
Along with majorities in Congress, we’ll need a Democratic President to be a shrewd political strategist to get any ambitious progressive legislation passed. This President will need to be able to coordinate well with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, and they’ll need the help of progressive legislators who are skilled in forming coalitions within the Congress. This President will need the communication skills to make their case to convince the American public and to defend their proposals from the inevitable right wing attacks.
This year, I’m more willing to support a Democrat with a more ambitious plan because I think the Democrats have a chance to have sizable wins in both Houses of Congress. As long as the centrists and the progressives don’t get into a huge fight and know that they need each other to win the diverse areas of our country, I think the Democrats will do well.
Here is a video of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the last great era of progressive legislation, and it’s positive benefits to American society.