The Potemkin Primary: Why Bernie and Hillary's Proposals Are Destined to Fail

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton pose before the start a debate in Kendall, Florida March 9. Javier Galeano/Reuters

For generations Democratic activists have defined themselves by where they stood during the presidential primaries. Were you inside the hall during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, helping to nominate Hubert Humphrey? Or were you outside the hall, protesting and getting beaten up by Mayor Richard Daley's police? Were you with George McGovern in 1972 or George Wallace? Did you back Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in 2008?

Sometimes the cleavages had deep policy implications—stay in Vietnam or leave quickly, for example. Other times, like in 2008, the policy differences between the two candidates were modest. Clinton favored the individual mandate in health care. Obama opposed it. That was one of the big fights—and in office, Obama adopted Clinton's position. But the cultural schisms—young versus old, men versus women—were huge.

This year's fight is already significant in terms of policy and symbolism. Sanders's hugely expensive health care and college tuition plans represent more than an expansion of the current social safety net. They represent the first massive tax increase on the middle class proposed by a Democrat in a generation. They also represent a major rethinking of American social policy. Clinton's hawkishness—her advocacy of a no-fly zone in Syria and commitments to NATO and unalloyed defense of Israel—puts her in a very different place than Sanders who has called for rebalancing America's approach to the Jewish state. The two aren't just divided on policy but on those cultural schisms dividing young and old, men and women, white and black. Show me a 20-year-old white male college Democrat and it's likely he's for Bernie. A 60-year-old black woman? She's for Hillary, of course—not always, but overwhelmingly.

Despite this divide, it's hard to recall an election where so few proposals being discussed are so hard to imagine being enacted. Call it the Potemkin primary. Almost nothing the candidates advocate will actually happen.

Why? Barring an electoral disaster of unforeseen proportions, the Republicans will continue to hold the House of Representatives and make all sorts of noise about the expansion of the minimum wage, increased gun control, more restrictions on coal and fracking and nondiscrimination statues based on sexual orientation. All of these goals face a Republican bloc in the House that is unyielding, and likely, a Senate that's equally opposed.

Compared to Clinton's and Sanders's proposals, those offered by George McGovern, Robert Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and other Democratic presidential candidates of the 20th century were far less of a reach. The main reason: Republican opposition is bigger and more dogmatic. This is why Barack Obama barely got the Affordable Care Act passed with a huge majority in the House and could count on 60 votes in the Senate. Obama did a lot, but he couldn't get a lot through including the public option for health care or a much bigger surplus.

Other presidents had fewer constraints. Lyndon Johnson had huge majorities that allowed him to pass the Great Society, but he also had a liberal wing of the GOP willing to help at key moments such as the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Now, however, only marginal progress is possible. In 2010, a lame duck Congress ended the ban on gays in the military and passed a major arms control deal with Russian. But the same divisions that have made Congress such a frustrating, gridlocked mess aren't going away next January.

When the Potemkin primary ends, Bernie and Hillary can look forward to the age of intransigence.