For Democratic presidential candidates pledging to help break the partisan fever in Washington D.C., the party’s base has a resounding message: Don’t.
Over the past week, several Democrats running for office, as well as those hinting at a run to come, have either subtly or overtly made the case that their relationships and good rapport with Republicans would be an asset should they win the White House.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) leaned into her emerging standing as a bipartisan pragmatist during her speech at the annual Gridiron dinner. Former Vice President Joe Biden reinforced his reputation for cross-party chumminess by praising his successor, Mike Pence, as a “decent guy.” And in his first interview as an official candidate for president, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said he’d move his agenda forward by sitting across from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and forging consensus.
“When I come into office, I would go to Mitch McConnell to his office and I would sit down with him and say, “Now what is the issue again?” and we would talk and I would continue to speak back to him ” the former Democratic governor of Colorado said on ABC’s Good Morning America. He added: “It sounds silly, right?”
For Democratic operatives and veterans of President Obama’s administration it did, indeed, sound silly.
“I don't know whether to laugh or cry,” Ben LaBolt, former national press secretary for Obama’s re-election campaign, said. “I think all of the pixie dust in the world couldn't make that happen. Believe me, we tried it. We said it. We prayed for it. It wasn't going to happen. It's not going happen now and it's not going to happen ever.”
The cynicism now about working with McConnell is the product of what Democrats say is years of wrongly assuming that he and his fellow Republicans could be moved by persuasion. Obama officials in particular held on to the mantra that the “fever” of Republican opposition to the president would break once they recognized how politically unpalatable such a posture was.
But after the 2012 elections, and a notably bipartisan dinner with the president in tow, little changed. And when Republicans won back the Senate in 2014 and McConnell blocked the seating of Merrick Garland—Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court—in 2016, and Donald Trump won election later that year, few if anyone held on to the notion that political courtship of the opposition was a fruitful venture. Even Obama came around to mocking the notion that schmoozing McConnell could win him over.
“There’s this sort of older way of thinking about politics where it’s all about personal relationships… That’s not how politics works,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama. “Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell had shared a bottle of whiskey once and McConnell went out and stole a Supreme Court seat from him.”
While the Democratic activist base is eager to see its field of candidate’s dispense with the notion that a dash of reason and a heaping of fraternizing can be effective in moving legislation, the lawmakers actually running for office have been notably reluctant to do so.
Few in the party have embraced the idea that the rules of the Senate should be changed to essentially eliminate the filibuster, save Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), who’s pushed for that as a means of passing ambitious climate change legislation, and whose team said it’s gotten positive feedback from Senate veterans for his stance. “We heard great response to his plans to end the filibuster and move forward on a strong climate change agenda,” said Inslee spokesman, Jared Leopold.
Even self-identified progressives in the field nod to the utility in having to win over Republican votes in order to move bills. In an interview on Monday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) expressed optimism at getting Republican votes for the Green New Deal resolution.
The refusal of most candidates to embrace these ideas has created a bit of a divide within the party writ large, with one camp believing that voters still yearn for an element of compromise (or an attempt at it) and another arguing it would be criminally stupid for Democrats to waste their time.
Hickenlooper is firmly in the former camp, having launched his campaign by stressing his work with suburban mayors, some of whom were Republicans, to support a tax hike for a light-rail system when he was mayor of Denver. In a statement to The Daily Beast, Lauren Hitt, communications director for the former governor’s campaign, chalked up skepticism among some Democrats about his remarks to the jaded mindset of “beltway insiders.”
“That’s exactly why Americans are hungry for someone like John Hickenlooper, who has a record of bringing people together to tackle our country’s biggest challenges—like beating the NRA and passing major gun reform in a purple state,” she said. “Of course conversation won’t solve every problem but acting as if we shouldn’t even try is exactly what’s wrong with DC.”
But others have been forced to straddle the divide. Biden made his remarks about Pence in the context of a larger point about how America’s standing with international allies has slipped precipitously during the Trump administration. But it drew rebuttals from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former New York gubernatorial candidate and activist Cynthia Nixon, both of whom noted Pence’s anti LGBTQ rights record. Biden eventually backtracked.
“You’re right, Cynthia,” he responded on Twitter to Nixon, before Warren was asked about the comments at an event in Iowa over the weekend. “I was making a point in a foreign policy context, that under normal circumstances a Vice President wouldn’t be given a silent reaction on the world stage. But there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President.”
The episode underscored what could be a unique challenge for Biden should he enter the race. He has not been shy about heaping praise on individual Republicans even when it might not be politically expedient for him to do so. And in January, he joked about the minor uproar he caused by giving a paid speech in Michigan during which he praised Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI)—then in the midst of a tight race to win reelection—for his work on medical research. A Biden spokesperson did not comment on whether the former VP had any reaction to Hickenlooper’s statement.
Scott Jennings, a longtime McConnell ally, said that working with the Kentucky Republican could still bear fruit for Democrats.
“[McConnell] will never give in on his core principles and values. That's true. He's not going to give away the farm to make some Democratic president happy,”Jennings told The Daily Beast. “But time and again he has proved that he is a deal maker and he values things like keeping the government open and using moments that are coming to a head to get both sides something they feel is worth having.”
Pfeiffer, by contrast, said that Democrats need to realize who they are dealing with, without mirroring their opponents’ tactics.
“This is not to say that Democratic voters or Democratic activists demand that we become like McConnell and Trump,” he said. “It is that we recognize who McConnell and Trump are and adjust our strategies as such.”