Here's a new rule for journalists covering the 2020 Democratic primaries. The next time a candidate promises to overcome the bipartisan division causing so much gridlock in Washington, ask that politician a simple question: "What should be done about the filibuster?" Their answers will help voters quickly understand who has thought seriously about the difficulties of governing in the 21st century — and who hasn't.
Judging by his campaign rollout Monday, John Hickenlooper hasn't.
The former Colorado governor announced his bid for the Democratic nomination Monday and almost immediately proved why he shouldn't be taken seriously: He promised to govern in bipartisan fashion, but he didn't say how.
Instead, we got this mush: "When someone's angry, you don't, you know, fight back with them or argue with them. You repeat back their words," Hickenlooper told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "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. Sounds silly right? But this works."
No, it doesn't.
Hickenlooper, by many accounts, has been a decent and effective mayor and governor. But the problem in Washington is not a shortage of active listening. Negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are not couples counseling, and optimism is not a plan. McConnell's tactic with the last Democratic president was to steadfastly oppose everything that president wanted to do. A heart-to-heart chat won't make Republicans change their strategic decisions or become partners in governing.
Former President "Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney's health-care policy, with John McCain's climate policy, with Bill Clinton's tax policy, and George H.W. Bush's foreign policy," Brad DeLong, a center-left economist, said in a widely noted interview published Monday at Vox. "And did George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years? No, they ... did not." McConnell and current congressional Republican leadership will be similarly intractable.
This doesn't mean that Hickenlooper and candidates like him — think of Starbucks chair Howard Schultz, who is considering a run as an independent — need to run angrier. Washington's gridlock isn't due to a failure of will, either. The problem is our government is structured so it's easier to not get stuff done than it is to accomplish anything. And the solution is for candidates to run smarter and show us specifically what that means.
Which brings us back to the filibuster.
There are many obstacles to getting things done in Washington, D.C. We're taught to honor checks and balances in our civics classes, but the truth is that there are probably too many veto points in the system. The filibuster is chief among them. As practiced in the 21st century, the Senate rule allowing filibusters has turned into a de facto 60-vote requirement for that chamber of Congress to pass any legislation. Republicans have already ended the filibuster for judicial nominations, and now it's time to get rid of it for everything else, too.
Quietly, the possibility of getting rid of the filibuster has become an issue in the Democratic primaries, but only one candidate — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) — sounds open to nixing this rule. "If the Republicans are going to try to block us on key pieces that we're trying to move forward," she said recently, "then you better believe we gotta keep all the options on the table."
There is, however, a growing sense among Democratic activists that ending the filibuster is the only way a Democratic president will be able to move legislation through a closely divided Senate. There is also an understandable skepticism here: Democrats are currently in the minority in the Senate — if the filibuster goes away, they've lost one of the few points of leverage they have under the GOP majority. That makes even supposedly radical candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wary. "I'm not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster," he has said.
Fine. But Democrats who want to keep the filibuster must explain to primary voters how they'll implement all their gaudy promises with this rule intact. Medicare-for-all is unlikely to become law if the filibuster remains in place. You can forget about free college, too. The Green New Deal? No way.
Without an achievable strategy for effective governance, such proposals amount to empty fantasizing. You can be sure congressional Republicans will have an achievable strategy for effective gridlock under the next Democratic administration. Democrats need a way to break through.
So far, Hickenlooper's plan for governing America depends on making nice with Republicans, but there is zero reason to believe that approach will work. He needs to come up with something better and smarter — and voters should demand he do so. The next Democratic president is going to need more than good intentions to be successful.