The Republican Senate majority leader, who blocked scores of President Barack Obama’s initiatives and even his Supreme Court nominee, dominated discussion among the 10 Democratic presidential candidates who sparred on stage Wednesday night in Miami.
Much of the Democratic Party’s agenda hinges on McConnell even if Democrats manage to win back the White House in 2020. Ambitious progressive proposals like “Medicare for All” or the Green New Deal, for example, stand little chance of becoming law given near-unanimous Republican opposition and the filibuster, the upper chamber’s long-standing supermajority requirement.
That’s why MSNBC host Rachel Maddow asked candidates who participated in the first of two Democratic presidential debates on Wednesday how they planned to deal with the notoriously recalcitrant Kentucky Republican if they are elected president.
It’s a tough question not only because of the sheer difficulty Democrats face in flipping the Senate but also because they would have to win seats in red states like Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, which they need to be able to enact big policy change.
Few candidates had good answers.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who enacted universal pre-K in his city, urged the Democratic Party to stop acting “like the party of the elites and be the party of the working people.” He urged Democratic candidates to campaign in red states in order to “put pressure on their senators to actually have to vote for the nominees that are put forward” by a Democratic president.
Under McConnell, Republicans have confirmed dozens upon dozens of Trump’s judicial nominees ― including some rated extreme and unqualified to serve as a judge. Even vulnerable GOP senators like Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who are up for reelection next year, have supported them.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) confirmed she had “a plan” to deal with McConnell if he remains majority leader in 2020, echoing her favorite line on the campaign trail so far. But she, too, gave a weak answer, especially considering that so much of her policy agenda hinges on being able to pass things in the Senate.
“Short of a Democratic majority, you better understand the fight still goes on,” Warren said. “It starts in the White House, and it means that everybody we energize in 2020 stays on the frontlines come January 2021. We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”
If you want to beat Mitch McConnell, this better be a working-class party. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio)
Sure, Democrats face a better Senate map in 2022. More GOP senators are retiring, especially from states Democrats consider increasingly winnable, such as Pennsylvania and Georgia. But that doesn’t account for what happens in 2021.
Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), who has advocated for accomplishing things in a bipartisan manner, said that “huge majorities” of Americans are needed in order to push through transformative changes in Washington. But he cautioned against fighting for liberal priorities like universal health care.
“We need real solutions, not impossible promises,” Delaney said. “We need to put forth ideas that work.”
Asked how he would get past McConnell, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) responded by highlighting his work helping pass a criminal justice reform bill in the Senate, an effort that was backed by an unusual coalition of both Democrats and Republicans, including Trump.
“I have taken on tough problems that people said we cannot achieve it. I have been able to get things accomplished,” Booker said.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, though, was the only candidate who, when asked about McConnell, touted his support for getting rid of the filibuster (Warren and Booker have also called for doing so).
“We have to do that,” he said. “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last that can do something it. Our towns are burning and fields are flooding, and Miami is inundated. We have to understand this is a climate crisis.”
As part of his strategy in taking on McConnell, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) made an electoral argument that Democrats ought to appeal more to blue-collar workers in red states.
“If you want to beat Mitch McConnell, this better be a working-class party. If you want to go into Kentucky and take his rear end out and Lindsey Graham out, you have to have a blue-collar party to go into the textile communities in South Carolina.”
Democrats are preparing to make McConnell a central villain of their push to win back the Senate in 2020, focusing on painting him as corrupt and an obstructionist. Polling conducted by Democrats shows anti-McConnell ads are more effective among voters than messages about Trump or congressional Republicans overall.
Three highly touted Democratic Senate candidates ― Iowa’s Theresa Greenfield, Texas’ M.J. Hegar and Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon ― have all focused on McConnell’s influence in their campaign launch videos.
The question about how to handle McConnell has tripped up former Vice President Joe Biden as well. The ex-senator drew mockery from his former Democratic colleagues earlier this month when he claimed that Republicans would become more accommodating once Trump was out of office.