Why Bernie Sanders can't govern

So all of Sanders’s initiatives would start as non-starters. Here, his theory of election and governance comes into play. He would go to the public, a public disgusted with Washington and its corrupt ties to the billionaire class and to business, and force members of Congress to their knees, shifting the debate and the agenda his way.

One of the enduring themes of our democracy is that inscribed in the Capitol, a quote from Alexander Hamilton: “Here, sir, the people govern.” But the notion that public opinion governs the agenda or the actions of Congress is, at best, a stretch. Going over the heads of Congress has long been a staple of frustrated presidents, and it has almost never worked; see Bill Clinton on health care and George W. Bush on Social Security among other recent examples. And these days, with most congressional districts resembling homogeneous echo chambers, created by a combination of people sorting themselves geographically and the distortions of redistricting, national public opinion has limited bearing on congressional leaders. Talk radio, cable news, social media, and blogs mean more. And none of those outlets would be swayed or intimidated to create some huge populist uprising that would force Congress to bring up, much less pass, a sweeping populist agenda. The more Sanders pushed, the more there would be a sharp and vicious counter-reaction that would further tribalize the country.

Sanders as president would be left with two main options: reduce his goals to aim for more incremental progress, or adopt a defensive approach to keep Obama’s policies from being rolled back—exactly what he has condemned in Hillary Clinton’s approach to governance. And while Sanders has been a more effective lawmaker than Cruz (or Rubio, for that matter, as demonstrated by Rick Santorum’s embarrassing failure on Morning Joe to find one accomplishment for his endorsee) there is little evidence that he has or could build the kinds of relationships with other members of Congress, or find ways to move the now humongous boulder up the hill (or Hill) of a thoroughly dysfunctional governing process. And, of course, he would face the deep disappointment of the activists he has inspired.