U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper has an unfailing belief in bipartisanship — an approach that made him popular as Denver mayor and Colorado governor but that some progressives now worry is unhelpful at a time when Democrats are being outmaneuvered in a deeply partisan Senate.
Hickenlooper, a Democrat favored to beat Republican Sen. Cory Gardner on Nov. 3, is trying to join the Senate at a time when it is almost paralyzed by partisanship. The passage of legislation is rare; many political nominees are confirmed on party-line votes; and Democrats have been left demoralized by a Republican leadership that has expertly employed procedural moves to greatly enhance its power.
“Each side blaming the other, each side exploiting its ability to cause pain to the other side, little legislating getting done, and a turn towards message politics rather than legislating,” explained Steven Smith, professor of political science at Washington University and author of “The Senate Syndrome: The Evolution of Procedural Warfare in the Modern U.S. Senate.”
None of that has deflated Hickenlooper’s optimism in a functioning, bipartisan Senate. The former governor, who has never worked in the nation’s capital, kicked off a presidential run last year by announcing that, if elected, he would simply walk into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, say, “Now, what is the issue again?” and then work out his differences with the Republican from Kentucky.
More recently, Hickenlooper has declined to say whether Democrats should expand the Supreme Court — an idea gaining traction among liberal activists — because, as he told The Denver Post, he is laser focused on pressuring Republicans to oppose Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination, despite strong evidence they will not. Hickenlooper said he’s “disappointed” in Republicans but holds out hope he can change their minds, despite strong evidence he cannot.
“So, maybe I’m going to be cruelly disappointed,” Hickenlooper told Vox in an interview published Sept. 25. “But I don’t think so. I think this is that moment in time where the American people have had enough, and they’ve been pushed into these two tribal camps that won’t speak to each other.”
Progressive activists say that is outdated naiveté, that Democrats have tried working with Republicans and only lost ground in the process. They want Senate Democrats to threaten wholesale reform of the judicial system to counteract Senate Republicans’ confirmation of more than 200 judges under President Donald Trump. That begins with adding justices to the Supreme Court, they say.
“Democrats need to use their authority and power to restore the balance, to expand the court, to implement other large structural changes to our democracy. Take the filibuster for example — we need to abolish the filibuster in order to expand the courts,” said Nick Tuta, an activist with Sunrise Colorado, referring to the 60-vote requirement that is needed to pass most legislation in the Senate.
“He should absolutely push to pack the court,” said Lorena Garcia, a former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate who spoke in favor of adding Supreme Court justices while on the campaign trail last year.
“We need leaders to be bold and aggressive. Shying away from difficult topics does not work and does not build trust in elected officials. They need to be decisive and act and that means getting ready to protect the people by packing the courts.”
Hickenlooper has said he is willing to consider filibuster reform if bipartisan legislating falls short. While running for president last year, he said he would be willing to consider adding justices if civil rights were at risk of being lost. He has since declined to discuss the matter further because he first wants to try to convince Republicans to not confirm a justice this year.
There was a time when bipartisanship wasn’t such a radical idea. A time when there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, when there were far fewer party-line votes in the Senate and many more split-ticket voters at the polls. A time when another Hickenlooper — Bourke Blakemore Hickenlooper — regularly crossed the aisle.
John Hickenlooper’s late cousin was a Republican senator from Iowa between 1945 and 1969, a high-water mark for bipartisanship in the upper chamber of Congress, which passed, with bipartisan support, a series of civil rights laws and vast expansions of America’s social safety net. Bourke Hickenlooper joined with conservative Democrats to unsuccessfully oppose much of it, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Medicaid and Medicare, which he called “socialism.”
“In the post-World War II period, we had very ideologically diverse parties, which we no longer have at this point,” said Michael Thorning, a former Senate staffer and current associate director of governance at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “We have very ideologically unified parties. All Republicans, I think, would be considered conservatives; all Democrats would be considered liberals or on the left.”
“There are fewer Democrats and Republicans,” said Washington University’s Smith, “who are within arm’s reach of a compromise than there was back in the mid-20th century. That’s in large part due to a realignment of our parties and public attitudes about the parties — it goes way beyond the halls of the Senate.”
Another reason for it, Smith said, is because of the frequently narrow majorities one party holds in the Senate. Neither party wants to give the other a victory, for fear of harming their party’s chances in the next election. That’s unlikely to change next year, whichever party comes out ahead.
More optimistic observers, such as Thorning, say a slim margin could embolden individual senators in ways the current structure of the Senate, with its incredibly powerful leadership roles, doesn’t. Hickenlooper and other moderates of both parties may gain influence if party control is 51-49, or even 50-50, next year.
“There’s an opportunity for a group of bipartisan members of be very effective (because) neither party is going to have a very big majority, no matter who has the majority of the Senate. Where you have a narrower margin, you have a lot more power to individual senators to affect outcomes,” Thorning said.
Hickenlooper has suggested his Senate tenure is unlikely to be long. In an interview with Vox, the 68-year-old said that because he is joining the Senate so late in life, he doesn’t expect to obtain a senior position in the chamber or be the chair of a committee, but rather a “foot soldier in the trenches” who works overtime to build relationships with members of both parties to get things done.
In today’s Senate, that qualifies as ambitious.
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