The tone for the day’s politics was set by a 6 a.m. tweet from Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana:
To give everyone a fair shot, we must do more than defeat Donald Trump. We have to defeat the corrupt system that keeps people like him in power, and we need a fighter who’s done it before.
That’s why I’m running for President. Join our team: http://stevebullock.com
I had to keep going back and checking “Steve Bullock” and “Montana” because neither one could really lodge in my brain. The humor of one more white man launching one more centrist bid for the Democratic presidential nomination—as if he could even be distinguished from the other white centrist men, let alone as if he represented some indispensable political talent—had worn thin enough. But the grandstanding about the need to “do more than defeat Donald Trump” and to “defeat the corrupt system that keeps people like him in power” was, in context, grotesque.
Bullock—like Beto O’Rourke or Julian Castro—comes from a state where a Republican seat in the Senate is up for election in 2020. The system that keeps people like Donald Trump in power is, quite directly, the United States Senate: the Senate is where the Republican Party, despite being opposed by a majority of the public, holds a structural advantage. Short of being personally appointed to Trump’s cabinet, it is where a billionaire can enjoy the most direct influence, investing in a single-state campaign where the winner has leverage over the whole national agenda. And it is the last and seemingly most impregnable defense against removing Trump through impeachment, no matter what the president has done or may go on to do.
Yet Steve Bullock doesn’t want to try to become a senator, for a party that desperately needs senators. He doesn’t aim to do more than defeat Donald Trump; like everyone else in the presidential pileup, he wishes only to defeat Trump himself, so he can be the hero of American politics.
People talk and talk about the hopelessness of Democrats’ fixation on winning the presidency, but it never sinks in. The country is less than three years removed from having a Democratic president—an extraordinarily charismatic and appealing figure, with gifts unmatched in living memory for the purpose of getting elected president—and the party and the American constitutional order are both in ruins. And the party’s response is to brew up a clone army of new Martin O’Malleys, adequate and unnecessary candidates trampling each other for the same prize.
Joe Biden, who stood at Barack Obama’s elbow to witness the powerlessness of individual political genius, now claims to believe that he can bring the country around and fix the Republicans’ attitude himself, through sheer electability and persuasion. Steve Bullock wants to make his version of the same offer, with an emphasis on fighting against big money, to “take our democracy back,” and on his ability to win over voters in a Trump state.
How is Bullock going to take anything back from the Republicans and their donors, with the Senate still in the opposition party’s hands? What makes him, or any of these other people jumping in, think they can do better than Obama did, by repeating his mistakes with less talent behind them? The forces of corruption and minority rule are smarter and tougher than that.
While Bullock was putting out his screen test for the role of National Savior 2.0, the political machinery the Republicans built under Obama was continuing to grind away at everything the Democrats might hope to accomplish. While he talked about abstract leadership and good government, the real system—the system of top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top Republican control of government—was at work in Alabama, passing a wholly unconstitutional and punitive abortion ban, the work of crackpot right-wing state legislators who hope, with rising confidence, that the new hard-right five-judge bloc of the Supreme Court will agree to revoke the whole existing structure of reproductive rights.
That Supreme Court bloc exists because the United States Senate, the bridge between the local partisan fanatics and the federal judiciary, proved to be more powerful than a popular president. Nearly any of the Democratic presidential aspirants, picked at random, has a decent chance to defeat Donald Trump. None of them, as president, can defeat Mitch McConnell as long as he’s still Senate majority leader. If Steve Bullock wants to take back our democracy, he could work on doing it piece by piece.