Democrats seeking the presidency in 2020 are readying for battle with Donald Trump. But at this point they appear to be running against a different Republican: Mitch McConnell.
The Senate majority leaderloomed large over Wednesday night’s first Democratic primary debate in Miami — and clearly flummoxed the presidential prospects when his name came up in questions from the debate moderators.
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On several occasions, contenders struggled to articulate a coherent strategy on how they would deal with McConnell if they were to win the presidency and he was still majority leader. Their proposals ranged from persuading senators to kill the filibuster to campaigning in red states.
The McConnell answers “were all over the place,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said Thursday. “I didn’t think they necessarily addressed the question. Because it’s a difficult question.”
Democrats on Capitol Hill said their party’s answer to McConnell must be better — but in many cases conceded that nothing will change unless McConnell is deposed as majority leader.And the McConnell talk exposed another raw nerve: The fact that so many potential Senate candidates and high-profile senators are pursuing the presidency is making the Senate an increasingly uphill battle — and that has some rank-and-file Democrats fuming. Steve Bullock could run in Montana, Beto O’Rourke or Julián Castro could run in Texas and John Hickenlooper could run in Colorado, but all have passed on Senate races to run for president.
“We have a lot of senators who are pursuing quixotic presidential campaigns and leaving it to everybody else to pull their weight in terms of winning the Senate. And we have a lot of potential Senate candidates who are pursuing quixotic presidential campaigns who I guess feel they’re too grand to be United States senators when they could probably win a seat,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “So yeah, I get pretty frustrated.”
For Democrats, it’s something of a nightmare to envision another two-year slog in the minority after failing the take the majority in 2016 and 2018. And presidential candidates are laboring to explain how they can work with or around McConnell, who stonewalled President Barack Obama for years on legislation and blocked him from filling a Supreme Court seat.
To win back the majority and make McConnell minority leader, Democrats need to pick up at least three seats on a limited playing field and protect Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.). It’s possible, but so too is a scenario in which President Donald Trump loses but the GOP holds enough seats in Maine, North Carolina, Arizona, Texas or Georgia to keep the majority.
Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd’s pointed questions about McConnell on Wednesday revealed how the self-proclaimed “grim reaper” of progressivism is already haunting the presidential race. McConnell is running for reelection himself as the primary roadblock to what he deems Democrats’ “socialist” agenda, reveling in the idea of blocking the legislation of a President Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.
Asked whether she had a plan for McConnell, as she did everything else, Warren (D-Mass.) claimed that sheer will could “make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee suggested trying to get rid of the filibuster when it comes to McConnell. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio offered that the party should campaign in more red states to get his members to turn against him on key issues. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker touted his work on the bipartisan criminal justice reform, a popular bill in both parties which came to the Senate floor after Trump demanded McConnell move it last year.
But those responses left people in both parties befuddled.
“I don’t know what answer they have for it,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a former presidential candidate.
In Thursday night’s debate, former Vice President Joe Biden will take the stage; he’s been leaning into his relationships with Republicans as a selling point. His allies say he can credibly claim to work with McConnell, as he did under Obama. The results, however, were often panned by liberals.
“He is someone who has a gift of working with people both Democrats and Republicans from far left to far right,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). “We’ll get things done.”
That sentiment earned a stern retort from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio): “There’s no evidence of it.”
McConnell’s “always going to play power politics and he’s always going to do what’s best for his contributors,” Brown said. The solution is “not going to be persuasiveness. Barack Obama, I guess, found that.”
In an interview, Booker insisted his campaign of political persuasion will only be stronger as president than it’s been as a senator.
“No. 1, if I’m president of the United States we’re playing to take back the Senate. And No. 2, I think there’s lot of ways to get things to the floor even if Mitch McConnell is still majority leader,” Booker said. “I’ve shown that through my Senate work and I’ll have a lot more leverage as president of the United States.”
McConnell acknowledged Thursday he wouldn’t indefinitely block a Democrat from getting a vote on a Supreme Court nominee. But he was otherwise elated with his name being invoked repeatedly on national television while he was watching the Washington Nationals win on Wednesday night.
“I’ve been stopping left-wing agenda items coming out of the House and confirming strict constructionists to the Supreme Court. If that’s my sin, I plead guilty,” McConnell said Thursday. “I was thrilled to dominate the discussion last night and I think that was a legitimate discussion to have.”
Republicans aren’t ruling out working with a Democratic president. But on the big ideas proposed like the “Green New Deal,” “Medicare for All” or big tax increases, there’s no hope of getting GOP support whether McConnell is majority leader or minority leader, Republicans say.
“There is no way that Republican senators or Republican congresspeople are going to vote for the proposals that came from Sen. Warren or Mayor de Blasio or others,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
Warren and Inslee are among the group of candidates saying that if Democrats take the majority and McConnell stuffs their priorities, the party should scrap the Senate’s 60-vote threshold and stop settling for the GOP’s opposition to bold ideas. And some legislation can be passed by a simple majority, as Obamacare ultimately was.
But all of those scenarios require beating Republicans in Senate races next year, not finding a way to work with him. That’s why Senate Democrats playing clean-up for their presidential candidates on Thursday had a starkly different message: “It would be silly to make any other plans besides winning,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)
“We Democrats have a really bad habit about getting into the weeds about what we should do when we win and forgetting about the winning part,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “ If we walk on, hat in hand, [Republicans] view that as weakness. We’re going to have to just win.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.