WASHINGTON – When John Hickenlooper announced his Democratic presidential campaign, he vowed to sit down with the Senate’s top Republican if he wins in 2020 – the kind of milquetoast pitch for bipartisanship that White House hopefuls have made for generations.
But for some Democrats, Hickenlooper’s pledge landed with a thud.
Still stung by President Barack Obama’s fierce battles with Republicans and at odds with nearly every policy the GOP has pursued during the Trump administration, some Democrats say they have little interest in talk of cross-party cooperation. They increasingly view Republicans as immovable obstacles on everything from health care to the economy and are challenging presidential candidates to blow past their GOP opponents instead of bringing them into the fold.
“Happy talk about coming together with the Republicans is not going to fly,” said Brian Fallon, who advised Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Fallon is pushing White House hopefuls to support overhauling Senate rules that typically require some level of bipartisan support for big-ticket legislation.
The take-no-prisoners approach represents a new test for Democratic presidential candidates eager to harness the energy of the party’s liberal base without alienating moderates who may be more open to compromising with the GOP. It also marks a significant shift in strategy and tone for a party whose last two nominees, Obama and Clinton, each made explicit appeals to moderate Republicans and vowed to work across the aisle.
“There are some very angry people who have watched the events of the last 10 years and watched Donald Trump and their attitude is ‘hell no,’” said David Axelrod, one of Obama’s closest political advisers. “And their voices are very loud.”
That new reality poses a dilemma for White House hopefuls like Joe Biden, who is expected to launch a 2020 campaign in the next few weeks. The former vice president has worked closely with scores of Republicans during more than four decades in politics, was Obama’s point man in numerous negotiations with congressional Republicans and will likely make that experience a cornerstone of a 2020 campaign.
Last week, Biden found himself at the center of a liberal firestorm after he called Vice President Mike Pence a “decent man” – the kind of offhand remark Biden has made about countless Republicans over the years. Liberal activists said Pence’s support of anti-gay measures made even that mild praise unacceptable, and Biden apologized.
But on Tuesday, Biden bemoaned a political climate in which speaking kindly about the other party is considered offensive.
“If you notice, I get criticized for saying anything nice about a Republican,” Biden said during a speech Tuesday to a firefighters union. “Folks, that’s not who we are.”
While partisan infighting is nothing new in Washington, Obama and Biden’s eight years in the White House left some Democrats particularly pessimistic about the party’s ability to work with Republicans. Party leaders still seethe over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s now-infamous pledge to make Obama a one-term president and contend GOP lawmakers repeatedly moved the goalposts on health care, budget battles and Supreme Court nominations.
Democratic strategist Maria Cardona said it’s not that Democrats wouldn’t prefer working with Republicans, “it’s that Democrats tried it and got screwed.”
Although Obama remains broadly popular among Democrats, some in the party now suggest he spent too much time trying to forge compromises with Republicans who had little interest in helping him achieve his agenda. Even as he campaigned for re-election in 2012, Obama said his victory would break the GOP “fever” – a prediction he and his advisers later conceded was overly optimistic.
Cardona said she hopes a future Democratic president is “a little bit more eyes wide open” about the likelihood of forging compromise with the GOP.
Polling shows just how far apart the two parties’ priorities are heading into the 2020 race. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last month, Democrats list health care costs, education, the environment, Medicare and assistance for poor and needy people as their top policy priorities. None of those issues landed among the top priorities for Republicans, who cited terrorism, immigration and the military among their most pressing priorities.
Democrats like Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, say they’re well-aware that simply sitting down and talking with Republicans will not suddenly break Washington’s logjam. But they say it’s equally naive to suggest Democrats can simply go it alone.
“Saying that we shouldn’t even try is exactly why we have constant gridlock in Congress,” Hickenlooper spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said. “What do we expect will happen in 2020 – the Republican Party is going to dissolve?”
Even if Democrats were to take back the White House, maintain control of the House and retake the Senate, their majority in the upper chamber would almost certainly be narrow.
That’s prompted a groundswell of support among Democratic activists for abolishing the filibuster, the Senate procedure that requires 60 votes to pass big-ticket legislation instead of a simple majority. Rarely do presidents have Senate majorities so large that they can clear 60 votes with only the support of their own party.
Jay Inslee, the Washington state governor running on an ambitious agenda to combat climate change, was the first Democrat to call for abandoning the filibuster. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of many progressive Democrats, has also said she’s open to making the change.
“It’s all on the table, baby,” Warren said when asked about the filibuster during a campaign event in New York.
Warren said Democrats have sometimes been too timid in power and declared, “I won’t be one of those.”