Meet the Democrat who plans to unite the party after 2020 turns ugly
Sen. Brian Schatz is rallying White House hopefuls around a series of proposals in a bid to avoid the ‘toxic debate’ that plagued the party in 2016.
Brian Schatz is no household name. But he's already positioning himself as an influential figure in the 2020 presidential race — someone who can unite the party around a shared agenda even if the primary inevitably turns ugly.
Schatz, the senior senator from Hawaii, says he is eager to help Democrats avoid “that whole stupid, unproductive, toxic debate” of 2016, when voters were seemingly forced to choose between Bernie Sanders’ bold-but-vague proposals and Hillary Clinton’s detailed-but-modest legislative prescriptions.
To do so, he’s been consulting with many of his Democratic colleagues running for president, often serving as an informal sounding board for their big ideas. Schatz has also penned his own series of proposals — on health care, climate change and economic inequality — to provide Democrats with a ready-made agenda should they take power in 2020.
And Schatz’s plans are gaining traction with Senate Democrats pursuing the White House.
Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have all signed on to his proposals to reduce college debt and create a public health insurance option for states. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has also endorsed the public option bill; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) supported it in the previous Congress.
“The last presidential election cycle demonstrated to us that voters are interested in policies, but it’s a challenge,” Schatz said in an interview in his Capitol office. “They don’t believe that we’re going to do anything about the things that we talk about. And so I’m just trying to put a little meat on the bones so that we have something to do.”
Schatz says he doesn’t pressure his colleagues running for president to co-sponsor his plans and is just trying to do his job as a legislator. But after more than six years in the Senate, Schatz has developed a reputation as someone who gets both the policy and politics of an issue, and as a potential future leader in the caucus.
“He’s just somebody who really thinks about these issues and doesn’t follow a herd on a bill,” Booker said. “He really wants to understand it, and if he believes that he has some better ideas he’ll put up something else.”
But unlike Booker and other presidential candidates, Schatz wants to remain in the Senate for a while.
Schatz is currently chief deputy whip for the Senate Democrats and was under consideration to become chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2018 cycle. As of now, he doesn't appear to have much interest in that role, given that he has children still growing up who live in Hawaii. And he says it's too soon to talk about high he might try to go in the Senate.
“It’s an odd thing to say I’d like to be a senator for as long as I can and for people to say that that’s not ambitious because that seems ambitious to me,” he said. “I want to try to solve climate change and deal with income inequality and make college more affordable. Those are pretty ambitious goals, they’re just not seeking the presidency.”
Some of his ideas haven’t taken off among White House hopefuls.
Of the declared candidates, Schatz’s proposal to tax high-speed trading on Wall Street only has support from Gillibrand. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who is also mulling a 2020 run, hasn’t signed off on any of Schatz’s proposals. That’s to say nothing of the more conservative Democrats in the Senate who aren’t running for president and have also shied away from Schatz’s plans.
Schatz, a liberal 46-year old, represents a younger generation for the Democratic Party. He takes to Twitter to attack Trump as well as make the occasional pop culture reference. His closest allies include fellow 40-somethings Booker, Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who say he has the political skill to unite the party behind a progressive agenda.
Heinrich described Schatz as the “glue that connects a lot of people together,” while Murphy said “there's few people in the caucus that have a more refined political antenna than Brian does.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) also praised Schatz for his ideas but quipped “he whines too much about going back to Hawaii,” joking about the time Schatz tweeted about flying back from Hawaii in December to vote against Trump's border wall.
Schatz is, in some ways, an unlikely senator. He first arrived in the Senate in 2012, after being appointed by then-Governor Neil Abercrombie to fill the late Sen. Daniel Inouye's seat. In 2014, Schatz survived a contested primary, beating out Inouye's protege Colleen Hanabusa.
His style differs from that of his Hawaii colleague Sen. Mazie Hirono, who has used her perch on the Senate Judiciary Committee to flay Trump and his controversial nominees.
When asked about Schatz’s proposals, Hirono, who isn’t trying to steer the presidential race, noted the party has long advocated similar plans: “We’ve been arguing for those things for a long time.”
Despite wanting to move his party left on college affordability, Wall Street and health care, Schatz has yet to become a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal plan introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Schatz describes himself as a “climate hawk” and is “strongly supportive” of the Green New Deal, but said he’s working on his own legislation.
Senate Republicans have blasted the Green New Deal as impractical and irresponsible, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to bring the resolution up for a vote, with the goal of getting Democrats on record supporting the idea.
But Democrats — who Schatz says are likely to all vote present — counter that at least they’re talking about climate change.
In an awkward exchange earlier this month, Schatz challenged Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) directly on the floor after she blasted the Green New Deal as a “socialist fantasy.” In response, Schatz asked Ernst whether she believed climate change is “real, caused by humans and requires federal action.”
When Ernst responded that she did believe climate change is real but then left the floor, Schatz attempted to follow up. Ernst didn’t respond.
Schatz said he thinks climate change will help drive younger voters to the polls in 2020, unlike in 2016.
Hillary Clinton was right on the issue, Schatz said, but she “never once made a sort of clarion call to the younger generation saying, ‘This is our moment, we have to take this opportunity to lead internationally.”
Even as Schatz works to unite the Democratic Party around an agenda, getting many of his proposals enacted as standalone bills will prove challenging with the Senate’s 60-vote threshold — even if the Democrats take back the Senate. But Schatz argued that some of his proposals, including his Medicaid public option plan, could find bipartisan support and be passed in a broader appropriations package.
At this early stage of the 2020 cycle, Democratic contenders have resisted attacking each other personally.
Schatz argues it might stay that way if they can keep the conversation centered on policy debates. That would also help voters make peace with supporting whoever wins the nomination even if their first choice fell short.
“In the end, everybody’s for making college affordable, everybody’s for climate action, everybody’s for trying to get economic equality addressed,” Schatz said. “And so that binds you I think more deeply than this sort of personality-based politics.”