A split has emerged among the Democratic presidential candidates over whether the party should aim to work with Republicans or wage war against them, a division stemming from a belief by many rank-and-file Democrats that the GOP has stopped playing by the old rules.
Former vice president Joe Biden repeatedly touts the need to return to an era of bipartisan comity, saying that “compromise is not a dirty word” and predicting that Republicans will have an “epiphany” on bipartisanship after President Trump is out of office.
Others say Biden’s view is naive and harks back to an era of bipartisanship that no longer exists, rather than confronting the hardball tactics that have helped Republicans notch big political wins in recent years.
“We’re done with two sets of rules, one for the Republicans and one for the Democrats,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a candidate for the presidency, said recently, suggesting that if Democrats win the Senate they should consider eliminating the filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to pass most legislation.
Another Democrat seeking the presidency, Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), echoed that sentiment in an interview this week. He cited an Obama-era fiscal deal, engineered in part by Biden and which Bennet argued had ceded too much to the GOP, as “a perfect example of Washington dysfunction masquerading as empty bipartisanship.”
The division crystallizes a question that could dominate the Democratic contest and goes to the heart of what the party, and the country, will be in the current era: Do most voters want a president who can bring the nation together or one who will steamroll the other side in what many partisans see as a far-reaching war over culture, ideology and the very definition of American identity?
The party dispute has been underlined by a disagreement among Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives over whether to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump — a move supported by many liberals, including some 2020 White House contenders, who have been urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to move more aggressively against the president.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) added fuel to the debate in recent days with a reminder of how he has used his power to roll over Democrats, especially in remaking the federal judiciary. This week, McConnell said he would fill a Supreme Court vacancy next year if he had the chance — a contrast to 2016, when he blocked an Obama Supreme Court pick while saying such nominees should not be confirmed in the final year of a president’s term.
Some Democrats say that despite their unhappiness with such tactics, democracy cannot work when the parties are waging an uncompromising war.
“I get it. I am as frustrated as anybody else,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who has endorsed Biden’s candidacy and holds the former vice president’s old Senate seat. “But the fundamental design of our democratic order assumes compromise and assumes that folks will put country above party . . . and take seriously the role of legislator and not just partisan warrior.”
Many disagree with that approach. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) speaks against the incremental reforms that political compromise tends to yield. Warren and some other Democrats want to change Senate rules so they can usher in sweeping changes without needing help from the minority party, support that they say they would never get.
Bennet, asked whether Democrats should vote for Biden, responded: “I don’t think we need to go backward.
“We need to go forward.”
Democrats who favor a more aggressive approach say that Republicans are rewriting the rule book. McConnell’s refusal to hold a vote, or even a hearing, for Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland continues to anger those who say that by rights it should be liberals, not conservatives, who are cementing their Supreme Court majority.
Trump, too, has upended many norms, including by largely rejecting congressional oversight and refusing to release his tax returns. In some states, Republican-led legislatures have reacted to a Democrat’s winning the governor’s office by reducing the power of the office.
The question facing Democrats is whether the right response to all this is to fight back with similar aggression or try to restore a greater sense of unity to the country. Some candidates think that voters have grown fatigued with the animosity and liken the political parties to children bickering in the back seat of a car.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has one of the most bipartisan records of those running for president, and she has called some of the more far-reaching proposals in the Democratic field — such as Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal and free college tuition — unrealistic, at least in the short term.
“The actual legislation you do, we know there’s going to be compromises,” Klobuchar said at a CNN town hall.
Polling in recent years has often found that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support elected officials who make compromises. Some 70 percent of Democrats said they approved of officeholders who compromise with those with whom they disagree, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey released in January.
In the current presidential field, few have made bipartisanship as much of a centerpiece as Biden, who suggested this week at a fundraiser in Houston that the country’s polarization has been exaggerated, an assessment not shared by most of his rivals.
“America’s less divided today on issues than when I got to the Senate as a 29-year-old kid,” said Biden, referring to his election in 1972. “Then we were divided on everything from war to the women’s movement to civil rights, across the board.”
Biden represents a more genial way of fighting in the political arena, an approach in which a leader may question an opponent’s policies but not the person’s character. It is in part a testament to his time in the Senate, where a speaker might call a colleague “my good friend and one of this body’s most distinguished members,” before proceeding to excoriate that colleague’s ideas.
Biden is leading the Democratic field in the polls, suggesting that many Democrats like his approach. But as he seeks the nomination of a party mobilized by outrage — and an eagerness to fight Trump, a man many Democrats consider fundamentally indecent — his unwillingness to channel the anger felt by much of the party is also drawing criticism.
In his campaign speeches, Biden almost always says, as an aside, that some figure is a good person, even if he adamantly disagrees with that person.
Even Trump has received Biden’s benefit of the doubt, at least rhetorically. “What amazes me about Donald Trump — and he’s probably a decent guy,” he said on “The Tonight Show” during an appearance in September 2016. “But his lack of sensibilities . . . I mean the way he talks about, you know, ‘I was rooting for the housing market to fail, because that’s business.’ That’s not business; that’s callous.”
In March, Biden was criticized for calling Vice President Pence “a decent guy.”
Actress and liberal activist Cynthia Nixon tweeted at Biden, “You’ve just called America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader ‘a decent guy.’ Please consider how this falls on the ears of our community.”
Biden said in response that he was speaking in a foreign-policy context and that “there’s nothing decent” about Pence’s views on gay rights. That was not enough for Nixon. “Please understand from where we sit,” she wrote, “his dehumanizing of our community disqualifies @MikePence for the honorific of ‘decent,’ regardless of the context.”
Biden’s insistence that a core goodness resides in other politicians dates back to when he entered the Senate in 1973. He was angry at Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who was opposing the Americans With Disabilities in Education Act and whom many Democrats despised and considered racially insensitive.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) told Biden that Helms and his wife had adopted a disabled teenager, and Biden recounted feeling foolish about his initial anger.
“Joe, every man and woman sent here is sent here because their state recognizes something decent about them,” Mansfield said, in Biden’s retelling. “It’s easy to find the parts you don’t like. I think your job, Joe, is to find out that part that caused him to be sent here. . . . Never question another man’s motive. Question his judgment but never his motive.”
Biden recalled that advice in his final floor speech in the Senate before becoming vice president.
“I think I can say without fear of contradiction I’ve never questioned any one of your motives,” he said. “Those who are willing to look for the good in the other guy, the other woman, I think become better people and become better and more able legislators.”
But Biden’s stories about events that occurred more than 45 years ago highlight his detractors’ view that he is living in a bygone era, and some liberals say Democrats would be foolish to unilaterally disarm when facing a formidable opponent such as McConnell.
“It’s always an easy applause line to talk about your willingness to work across the line, but at this point, it’s just plain dishonest for any Democrat to go around acting like they will be able to clink glasses of bourbon with Mitch McConnell to get progressive legislation enacted,” said Brian Fallon, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Fallon, who was also a top aide to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, took aim at Democrats who long for the days when President Ronald Reagan and then-House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.) famously put aside their differences to work across party lines.
“The next Democratic president needs to have a plan to bring about structural change, because the days of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil are gone, and they ain’t coming back so long as McConnell is in charge on the Republican side,” Fallon said.
But others say Biden’s approach is an asset.
“Biden knows how to work the legislative process. That is a major virtue,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has not endorsed in the Democratic primary field. “Lyndon Johnson had it. And the obstacles were every bit as formidable in the era of civil rights legislation as they are now in certain ways.”
David Weigel in Hudson, N.H., contributed to this report.