The Biggest Divide Among 2020 Democrats Is How To Pass The Party’s Agenda

Biden wants to work with the GOP, Warren wants to change the rules and Sanders wants to build a movement.
Warren the Fighter, Booker and Biden the Uniters, and Bernie the Revolutionary.
Warren the Fighter, Booker and Biden the Uniters, and Bernie the Revolutionary.

WASHINGTON — It’s easy to write off former Vice President Joe Biden’s comment this week — predicting Republicans would have an “epiphany” and embrace bipartisanship after President Donald Trump leaves office — as a simple gaffe or as a way to signal to moderate voters that he, too, cares about the nation’s precious norms.

Similarly, it’s easy to dismiss Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ calls for a political revolution as mere rhetoric, a way to make his supporters feel a part of something bigger than themselves. And you can brush aside Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s support for eliminating the Electoral College and the filibuster as simply pandering to the party’s left wing with never-gonna-happen calls to change arcane parliamentary rules and alter the Constitution.

But these debates point to the biggest divide among the different Democratic contenders to challenge Trump in 2020: How, exactly, should the party try to implement its agenda? Whichever strategy eventually triumphs will have major implications for the party’s approach and level of ambition when it regains power.

“A lot of candidates are grappling with this. The single most obvious obstacle to change in 2021 is going to be the filibuster. We’re eager to hear people take this on,” said Leah Greenberg, the co-executive director of the liberal grassroots group Indivisible, which is pushing for the end the Senate’s 60-vote requirement for most major pieces of legislation. “A policy proposal from a Democratic candidate that depends on Mitch McConnell getting behind it is not a real policy proposal.”

To be clear: Republicans are not even pretending they will work with Democrats if they lose the presidency. McConnell, who is running for reelection in 2020, recently promised voters in Kentucky he would be the “grim reaper” for progressive proposals. 

“If I’m still the majority leader of the Senate after next year, none of those things are going to pass the Senate,” he said. “They won’t even be voted on.” 

So how do Democrats defeat death itself? There are essentially three camps.

  • Unity: Biden, along with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and a host of centrist elected officials, are unapologetic about working with Republicans and believe they can still advance Democratic goals even while compromising with the GOP.

  • Revolution: Sanders promises a political revolution that begins with the American public and then goes to Washington, bringing intense pressure to bear on politicians to adopt progressive priorities.

  • Change The System: Warren wants to fundamentally alter the rules of Washington’s power structure, weakening the influence lobbyists and corporations have over policy outcomes.


When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won reelection in 2014, it was left to then-Vice President Joe Biden to swear him
When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won reelection in 2014, it was left to then-Vice President Joe Biden to swear him in. If Biden wins the presidency, McConnell will be his biggest obstacle to policy victories.

Biden, the last truly top-tier candidate to enter the contest, is unapologetic about his quest for bipartisanship, and is set to deliver a speech on bringing the country together on Saturday in Philadelphia. Based on his past successes, he believes he can still persuade McConnell and other Republicans to agree to progressive priorities through a give-and-take negotiation.

“My whole career, I’ve been able to get a lot of things done. I know I’ve been criticized by some on the far left because I think, actually, we should work with Republicans,” Biden told a gathering of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers not long before he launched his bid.

Biden’s reference to his whole career is telling. He entered the Senate in 1973, and for much of his career, the upper chamber was ripe for across-the-aisle partnerships, with plenty of conservative Democrats (mostly from the South) and liberal Republicans (mostly from the Northeast) ready to cut deals.

In his 2007 memoir, “Promises To Keep,” Biden remembers how he would drive the liberal leader Hubert Humphrey “around the bend” by his willingness to work with the GOP, and wistfully recalls the not-so-long-ago days when he worked with the late Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar to keep the Bush administration in line. The entire book is infused with Biden’s admiration for the days where senators were nationally known, larger-than-life dealmakers. Biden’s signature legislative achievement – the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 – came on a 61-38 vote, with six Republicans backing the law. 

My whole career, I’ve been able to get a lot of things done. I know I’ve been criticized by some on the far left because I think, actually, we should work with Republicans. Joe Biden to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers

But as each party has become ideological, those opportunities have decreased, and brinkmanship has become as likely as bipartisanship.

“Look, folks,” Biden told the IBEW. “This is not who we are. This is not the America we knew growing up.”

But that center has disappeared. Political scientists have noted Congress hasn’t been this polarized since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1973–1974, the first two years of Biden’s time in the Senate, 240 members of the House ― a majority ― were ideologically in between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. In the Senate, 29 senators fell within the same ideological range. But by 2011–2012, no Democrat was more conservative than any Republican in either chamber, and no Republican was more liberal than any Democrat.

Considering his experience as Obama’s vice president, Biden should be aware of these changes. While he did managed to broker a deal with McConnell to avoid the fiscal cliff, the deal was blasted by progressives and despised by then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. The rest of his time as vice president was largely defined by uniform GOP opposition.

Sometimes, Biden seems to understand this. For more than a decade, he’s warned audiences that “this is not your father’s Republican Party.” But he still seems determined to work with Republicans, arguing that Trump is an aberration from the party’s history.

“The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House. Not a joke,” Biden told reporters this week while campaigning in Concord, New Hampshire. “You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”

While Biden has avoided directly weighing in on the debate over the 60-vote threshold and other process questions early in his campaign, Booker ― who generally shares Biden’s philosophy about the necessity of working with the GOP and combines it with a hearty dose of rhetoric about love and the need to unite the country ― has weighed in. At a progressive summit in D.C. earlier this year, he said filibuster reform was foolhardy because it also protected Democratic priorities.

“If Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and Donald Trump had two years like they just had without me in the Senate and other noble progressives who fought them with you to prevent the taking away of health care, we would have lost that battle — Obamacare would have been gone,” he told the crowd of activists.

Booker’s math is off, even if his point has merit and is shared by other skeptics: Thanks to the late Arizona Sen. John McCain and his infamous thumbs down, Republicans were never able to muster even the 50 votes they needed to repeal Obamacare through the reconciliation process.


If Sanders becomes president, he'll rely on a lot more rallies like this one in Pittsburgh to build support for his agenda.
If Sanders becomes president, he'll rely on a lot more rallies like this one in Pittsburgh to build support for his agenda.

Sanders’ reluctance to embrace the elimination of the filibuster has puzzled some of his ideological allies. How exactly does the democratic socialist plan to pass his ambitious, politically polarizing agenda ― Medicare for All, a $15 per hour minimum wage and free college tuition ― while the filibuster remains in place? (Even the most optimistic Democrats acknowledge it’s unlikely the party has more than 53 Senate seats at the start of 2021.)

Sanders, in a statement last month, elaborated on his plans. He opened with a quick history lesson: “As was the case with workers’ rights, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement and the environmental movement, the only way transformational legislation like Medicare for All passes is when millions of people stand up and demand it. And we’re making progress in that fight every single day.”

He then went on to acknowledge he didn’t have enough support among Senate Democrats to pass “what rank-and-file Democrats want ― and that is a Medicare for All, single-payer system.” He predicted that support would exist “sooner rather than later,” and said once the majority existed, he would be prepared to end the filibuster. If not, he said, he would pass Medicare for All using budget reconciliation, which requires only 50 votes, promising his vice president would overrule the Senate parliamentarian if necessary to pass the bill.

The dance Sanders has gone through to embrace filibuster reform ― it was only a few days before that he told HuffPost he didn’t support it because you can’t “just simply shove everything through” ― hints at how much the Vermonter believes widespread public support is necessary to enact real change in Washington.

“Real change is never going to come from Capitol Hill. It will come from a grassroots political movement,” he said at the We The People Summit. “When millions of people stand up and fight back, we will not be denied.”

“The major political, strategic difference I have with Obama is it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway,” Sanders, putting a finer point on his differences with most Democrats, told Vox in 2014. “You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.”

Real change is never going to come from Capitol Hill. It will come from a grassroots political movement. When millions of people stand up and fight back, we will not be denied. Bernie Sanders at the We The People Summit

Sanders’ goal has always been revolution. He starts with a bold but typically simple premise ― “Every American should have health care” ― which leads to a policy solution — in this case, Medicare for All. He then works to rally people to his cause.

Sanders and his ideological allies are relentless in hyping polling data showing the popularity of his ideas, which pundits often dismiss as pie-in-the-sky. Sanders’ team believes public popularity is essential for legislation, not only to persuade reluctant legislators to pass it, but also to protect from after-the-fact attacks.

“You’re not only going to have Sen. Sanders winning the White House,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, told thousands of supporters who gathered at house parties in April. “My friends, you are going to see a wave — a wave up and down the Democratic ballot. That is what we are fighting for.”

Sanders’ work to protect the Affordable Care Act from GOP repeal attempts is an example of how this strategy works in the real world. Beginning on January 15, 2017, with a rally alongside Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in Warren, Michigan, Sanders barnstormed the country, holding health care rallies in eight states to generate support for Obamacare as Republicans struggled multiple times to repeal it.

Sanders’ team believes the rallies, often held alongside Democratic senators and House members from those states, helped stiffen the party’s spines during the fight over repeal. Obamacare, which was already growing in popularity, soon become untouchable, and the party refused to compromise with GOP repeal attempts.

But there’s one recent and prominent counterexample to the idea that winning in public opinion wars is the surest path to change. In 2013, following the massacre of first-graders at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, opinion polling showed more than 90 percent of voters supported universal background checks and a ban on selling assault weapons. That didn’t prevent an overwhelming majority of GOP senators and even four Democrats from voting against a bill to expand background checks for gun sales.

Change The System

Warren unveiled an ambitious anti-corruption package even before she entered the presidential contest.
Warren unveiled an ambitious anti-corruption package even before she entered the presidential contest.

Warren doesn’t dismiss the importance of building a grassroots movement, and she paid homage to the civil rights and suffrage movements during her own speech at the We The People Summit. But her focus, shown by her eagerness to discard the filibuster and her focus on limiting the influence of lobbyists and money in politics, is on altering Washington’s playing field.

Before she even began her run for president, Warren introduced legislation last fall she hyped as the biggest anti-corruption measure since Watergate. It would impose a lifetime lobbying ban on Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress, delay congressional staffers from taking lobbying jobs for at least six years and change the federal rulemaking process to restrict business interest groups’ ability to delay or influence regulations.

The overall aim is to reduce the influence moneyed interests can wield over policymakers. The numerous policy proposals she’s released during the campaign have similar elements: Just this week, Warren released a plan to limit the defense industry’s influence on the Pentagon.

Warren’s focus on Washington’s internal rules and corruption grows out of her initial experiences on Capitol Hill, when she was part of a small group of advocates fighting the financial industry’s attempts to change bankruptcy rules.

In her book “A Fighting Chance” Warren repeatedly recalls the forces the big banks were able to marshall against her and the other Democrats fighting for bankruptcy reform and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, noting the “staffers and lobbyists and lawyers for the megabanks outnumbered [financial reform advocates] by a zillion to one.” One of the chapters of the book is titled “What A Million Dollars A Day Can Buy,” referring to the amount banks spent fighting the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

“Here’s the good news — I have the biggest anti-corruption proposal since Watergate,” Warren is fond of saying at rallies. “The bad news — we need the biggest anti-corruption proposal since Watergate.”

I’ve watched Republicans abuse the rules when they’re out of power, then turn around and blow off the rules when they’re in power. Elizabeth Warren in New York City

Warren’s speech on ending the filibuster, delivered to the National Action Network, focused on how conservatives have used it to block progressive goals for decades, going back to how segregationists used it to block a bill to make lynching a federal crime in 1922.

“For generations, the filibuster was used as a tool to block progress on racial justice. And in recent years, it’s been used by the far right as a tool to block progress on everything,” Warren told the mostly African American crowd in New York City. “I’ve only served one term in the Senate – but I’ve seen what’s happening. We all saw what they did to President Obama. I’ve watched Republicans abuse the rules when they’re out of power, then turn around and blow off the rules when they’re in power.”

Warren isn’t without bipartisan accomplishment during her brief time in the Senate ― she often mentions her work with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on a law to cut the price of hearing aids ― but her signature legislative victory was the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which came despite ferocious Republican opposition and happened before she even joined the Senate.

Sanders has spent more time in the Senate, and his success under the chamber’s existing rules could give him reason to be skeptical of the need to kill the filibuster. Working with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), he was able to invoke the War Powers Resolution and persuade the Senate to end American support for Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen. (Trump later vetoed the legislation.) And working with McCain, he was able to pass a bipartisan bill to reform the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. 

Warren isn’t totally alone in seeking to change Washington’s structure, though her vision is the most comprehensive. Both Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington state and Steve Bullock of Montana are open to eliminating the 60-vote rule, and California Sen. Kamala Harris said she was open to a conversation about increasing the number of seats on the Supreme Court.

But Warren’s plan also has its barriers: Killing the filibuster in the Senate requires the cooperation of other Democratic senators. So far, vanishingly few have endorsed fully eliminating the 60-vote requirement for most major legislation, even as both parties have slowly chipped away at the rule.

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