The race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination got another entrant today, which makes 12 major candidates, with more to come. John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, announced today that he’ll be running, and while in a different year he might have been a strong contender — reasonably successful and well-liked governor, middle-aged white guy — he has a bit of a timing problem.
It isn’t just that Hickenlooper isn’t nationally known and may be more moderate than what Democratic primary voters are looking for right now. It goes to what sort of president he says he’d be. To hear him talk, it’s as though he parachuted in from a few decades ago and has no idea how politics works in 2019 or what sorts of impediments the next Democratic president is going to face. Let’s look at the way he summed up his candidacy in an interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos this morning:
I’m running for president because I believe that not only can I beat Donald Trump but that I am the person that can bring people together on the other side and actually get stuff done.
Hickenlooper talked about the importance of going out and listening to people, about how when he was mayor of Denver and ran for governor he connected with voters all over the state whose concerns weren’t partisan. Which is surely true, but unfortunately it shows that while being out in the “real” America (i.e. not Washington) can help you understand how policy decisions affect people’s lives, it can also obscure the real challenges of federal policymaking the next president will face.
That's because as much as Washington is its own bizarrely dysfunctional environment, if what you want is to run the federal government, you have to understand how Washington works.
There can be a danger in learning too well the lessons to be found outside the capital, if you're constantly being told by voters things like, "I don't understand why they can't just put all that partisanship aside and get things done!" That's something people outside Washington say all the time, and while it's a legitimate desire, it betrays a lack of understanding of contemporary politics in America, for a couple of key reasons.
First, when you say what we need is to put aside the squabbling to “get things done,” you’re assuming that there’s broad agreement on what the “things” are that ought to be done. From time to time that may be the case; for instance, last December, Congress passed a bipartisan criminal-justice reform bill, because it was something both Democrats and Republicans thought was worthwhile.
But for most of the big issues, there are profound disagreements not just on means, but also on ends. Democrats want to expand reproductive rights; Republicans want to restrict them. Democrats want strong action on climate change; Republicans want to increase fossil fuel use and cut back environmental regulation. Democrats want more people to have government-guaranteed health coverage; Republicans want fewer people to have it.
Those differences are hard or even impossible to resolve because the two parties have fundamentally incompatible goals. You can't just get in a room, realize that we all want what's best for America, and find a solution.
The second and more important reason that the two parties can’t just sit down, hash everything out, and get things done is that there’s this thing called the Republican Party. You may have heard of it. But apparently John Hickenlooper hasn’t.
Let me point to another part of his ABC interview, where Stephanopoulos asked him how he'd deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell if he became president. Hickenlooper makes reference to a regional transit initiative he pursued while he was mayor of Denver:
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 — it sounds silly, right? But this works, this is what I did with the suburban mayors, and they hated the city of Denver. You go to any metropolitan area in the country, the arguments between the big-city mayor and the suburban mayors, they’re almost endless. We’re the one place where this has gotten done, and I think it’ll work in Washington.
Here’s the problem for a Democratic president: Today’s Republican Party isn’t just committed to a particular set of policy preferences, it’s also committed to a style of politics in which 1) any compromise with Democrats on a controversial issue is an unconscionable betrayal, and 2) literally any tactics, no matter how morally reprehensible, are justified in the pursuit of their goals.
When Barack Obama was elected (another Democrat who said he wanted to bring people together), McConnell and his colleagues made a decision that they would work to deny Obama any victories, even if it meant doing demonstrable harm to the country. They would filibuster everything, slow confirmation of appointees to a crawl, shut down the government, threaten to default on America's debts, and find any legislative maneuver they could to throw sand in the gears. They were neither shy nor subtle in making clear that this is what they were doing.
Obama would beg and plead and cajole and reach out and compromise in an effort to get Republicans to engage with him on issues such as health care and climate, to no avail. It all culminated with McConnell’s decision to hold open a Supreme Court seat for almost a year, simply refusing to allow Obama to fill a vacancy. Why? Because he could. If Hickenlooper sincerely thinks he can persuade McConnell to abandon that strategy and join with him in a bipartisan manner to “get things done,” it’s reason to question his mental stability.
Now maybe Hickenlooper doesn’t actually believe it. Maybe he just realizes it’s something many Americans want to hear. But more likely, he thinks that what worked in local and state politics will inevitably work in Washington. It won’t.
I should say that one can criticize some of the other Democratic candidates on their ideas for how to get their agendas passed, which I have done. For instance, Bernie Sanders seems to think that he’ll lead a grass-roots movement so powerful that it would force Republicans in Congress to vote for things they despise such as single-payer health care and free college, which is no less ridiculous than thinking that they’ll come around to helping a Democrat pass his agenda with enough friendly sit-downs.
But if you don’t have a plan for overcoming Republican opposition that takes that opposition as a given — not as something you can make disappear, but as something you must find a way to defeat or circumvent — you don’t have a plan for governing. And that’s something any Democrat who wants to be president ought to have.