In both parties, this election is almost physically vibrating with the accumulated frustration of political life under a divided government. By Election Day, one party will have simultaneously controlled the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives for just 12 of the 48 years since 1968. By contrast, one party held unified control of all three branches for fully 58 of the 72 years before then.
During his first two years, President Obama achieved big legislative breakthroughs with unified control (and the biggest, if fleeting, Democratic Senate majority since Jimmy Carter). But after Republicans regained the House (in 2010) and the Senate (in 2014) it’s been trench warfare in which Obama has increasingly turned to unilateral executive action (on issues like climate and immigration) to further his goals. That’s left liberals frustrated that Obama couldn’t achieve more—and conservatives steamed that the Republican Congress couldn’t undo more of what he did achieve.
The 2016 candidates are diverging over how they would break this stalemate. Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders has built his campaign on promising to mobilize a transformative movement against the “billionaire class.” When he appeared at Iowa State University here Monday, his first words were, “So, you guys ready to make a political revolution?” In Sanders’s vision, a massive grassroots uprising will shatter the constricting limits of today’s political debate and thrust forward long-time liberal goals such as single-payer health care and free public-college tuition.
For Sanders’s growing army, it’s an exhilarating prospect. But even some who cheer his goals question how he will overcome opposition from Republicans irrevocably opposed to them. “My only question is does he have the ability to carry some of these radical ideas through?” said Mark Bergstrom, an engineer from Minneapolis, who drove down to hear Sanders.
Hillary Clinton increasingly is presenting herself as the pragmatic doer to Sanders’s poetic dreamer. Her core case is that she can push more progressive gains through the current clogged system—even if her goals aren’t as sweeping as Sanders’s. Bergstrom is like many Democrats who find Sanders’s argument more inspiring and Clinton’s more realistic. Still undecided, he says that along with his wife he’s weighing, “Do we vote for smaller changes in a direction we believe in [with Clinton], or make a bigger gamble [with Sanders]?”
How other Democrats answer that question will determine whether Sanders can truly threaten the front-runner.
Among Republicans, the candidates largely promising to work within the system (Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and, up to a point, Marco Rubio) are all struggling. Those promising to raze the system lead the field: Cruz, and above all, Trump.
While Sanders promises bottom-up change powered by a grassroots movement, Trump offers the opposite: top-down change catalyzed by his forceful personality and deal-making acumen. Trump seems genuinely convinced he could negotiate with Congressional Democrats if elected. “That’s the way the country is supposed to work,” he insisted in Marshalltown this week.