The Progressive Hawaii Senator Reshaping the 2020 Race, Without Even Running

Brian Schatz heads to a meeting on Capitol Hill with Democratic Senate colleagues Chris Murphy and Cory Booker on June 20, 2017. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

As young, Twitter-friendly Democrats in the Senate go, Brian Schatz is slightly unusual: He really, seriously, definitely has no interest in running for president in 2020. But, slowly and beneath the radar, the low-profile 45-year-old progressive Senator from Hawaii has already started leaving his mark on that race. And if all goes to plan, Schatz’s attempts to yank his headline-grabbing colleagues — including potential 2020 contenders like Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders — to the left on his priorities will help shape his party’s policy backbone for the foreseeable future.

There are 17 months before the first presidential nominating contests of 2020, and 27 months before Democrats could have a reasonable shot at taking back power in D.C. more broadly. But Schatz is already pushing fellow senators to commit, on the record, to backing his proposals on issues from healthcare to climate, and college affordability to Social Security, before primary season explodes into a carnival of gauzy debate-stage promises and shifting goalposts.

“I want Democrats in the Senate, Democrats running for Congress, to rally around an aggressive, progressive agenda. And it’s not a gotcha, litmus test–style agenda, but one that, if we enact it, would be on a scale that is equal to the problems, and has the ability to actually motivate voters. They know that we are in unusual times, and that being aggressive, and clear, and not doing half-measures is what these times call for,” explained Schatz, folded into a leather armchair in his office, in the back corner of the seventh floor of Capitol Hill’s Hart Senate Office Building, with bright blue fish-patterned socks poking out of his navy suit. “I also think it’s the best way to win.”

The plan has already worked on a pair of issues that have been central to the party’s post-2016 move to the left.

In 2017, after a summer of rage over the future of healthcare policy, Schatz saw a window to offer his own prescription for the party — one that was free of the political baggage associated with Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All proposal, and which would fit in with most Democrats’ stated mission of saving (and fixing) Obamacare. He set about searching for colleagues in the Senate who would support a pitch that would give individual states the power to build individualized Medicaid buy-in options for their residents, of all incomes. By the time he introduced a bill in October, 18 colleagues had agreed to put their name to it, including potential 2020 heavyweights and contenders like New Jersey’s Booker, California’s Harris, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren, Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, and Sanders himself — the six senators believed to be considering 2020 bids most seriously. It had become one of the party’s most popular healthcare pitches, moving it squarely into the left’s mainstream and making it even likelier to be a proposal Democratic primary voters hear plenty about next year.

Within months, Schatz had turned his attention to the idea of debt-free college, yet another topic central to the rise of the party’s left flank during Sanders’s 2016 campaign. But believing that his colleagues needed a bolder vision to make higher education affordable if they wanted to connect with the young voters they so desperately sought, he decided to try selling them on a plan that would use a federal matching program for states’ expenditures to cover not just students’ tuitions, but also housing, books, and other expenses. When, in March, he formally introduced the bill, the 2020 crowd was again largely by his side: Booker, Harris, Gillibrand, Warren, and Merkley were co-sponsors.

Schatz’s policy scope is broad, and he’s still working on his effort to peg Democrats’ standard bearers to his lefty proposals in the coming months: In addition to advocating for a version of the Social Security benefit-expanding legislation he’s been pushing since 2015, Schatz is working with Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse to win over support from both parties for a fee on carbon use to combat climate change. And he’s now in the process of negotiating with colleagues to get some to sign onto a bill he hopes to introduce this month to require companies that hold visitors’ data to act in the best interest of their users — a move that would establish new privacy standards. The issues he’s chosen aren’t always the flashiest, but his proposals are red meat to many left-wing policy wonks, and they cover a wide range of issues around which his party has long been in search of a consensus.

At the very least, the proposals can give 2020 candidates a starting point from which they can later deviate when it comes time to debate policy next year, say campaign veterans. “You have a much more engaged policy electorate in your primary, because a lot of the younger generation, as we learned in 2016, are informed, and those folks have now been following it for a bit,” explained Amanda Renteria, the political director for Hillary Clinton’s last presidential bid. “It might avoid the major platform fights that were happening in 2016, building an overall consensus before the 2020 fight begins.”

Consensus, after all, is hard to come by for Democrats these days. Schatz’s push comes as the rift between progressives looking to invigorate their insurgency and center-left Democrats clinging onto power bursts back onto center stage, with 2020 quickly approaching. And with Donald Trump’s GOP still in full control of D.C., both sides of the Democratic Party are wary of overplaying their hand, conscious that a larger war rages on as they fight their internal battle. When I walked into Schatz’s office to hear about the project, progressives were feeling as emboldened as they had in months: The previous evening, Queens upstart Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunned the political establishment by beating House Democratic power broker Joe Crowley in a primary upset of historic proportions. But by the time I left less than an hour later, a sobering reality check had landed: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was retiring, surely empowering Trump to cement his transformation of the Court for a generation.

Still, as the Democratic Party’s likely next leaders shift leftward ahead of a wide-open presidential race, the senator’s goal is to provide colleagues with a set of policy anchors that are relatively politically safe within the party, but which are still significantly farther to the progressive end of the spectrum than their consensus policies have ever been before. “I’m in a unique position, because you have — is it 26 or 27 now? — 26 members on the Democratic side who are up [for re-election in 2018]. A lot of people are running for president, and a lot of people are up for reelection, and that doesn’t leave a lot of folks left to work these issues deeply,” Schatz conceded to me. He didn’t need to single out his dozen-plus colleagues in the Senate Democratic caucus who’ve been part of the pre-2020 White House race discussions (with varying degrees of sincerity). “I’m in sort of a safe place, because I’m not about to compete with them in Des Moines.”

But it’s not just 2020 that puts Schatz in a unique position to make his move. A young legislator from a deep blue state who could easily be reelected for years to come, it’s no stretch to think he could one day wield serious power in the Senate, say both his colleagues and longtime students of the chamber. “If anybody can do something like this, it’s him,” explained Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a decades-long Senate veteran who worked for former majority leader Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, and George Mitchell. “As a sitting United States Senator, [Schatz] has as much ability as any to force a debate, [but] he’s well liked within the caucus, he’s someone folks listen to. If given a chance, he has an opportunity to be a significant player in the Senate.”

And as a progressive who’s not known as a Sanders-style bomb-thrower, Democratic leaders view his style as representative of the party’s future. In early 2017, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer added Schatz to his leadership team as a chief deputy whip.

“We, as a party, are at an inflection point, and we need to have a debate about who we are and where we’re going. What I like about what he’s doing is he’s not drawing lines in the sand or making litmus tests, which in my mind is the last thing we need,” added Manley. “We need to actually have the debate, and he’s smart enough to realize that. The last two elections were a disaster, and we need to have that debate.”

With his party far from power, Schatz sees no use in trying to formally force the Senate to consider his legislation, and he says he has little appetite for maneuvering “show votes” that wouldn’t go anywhere. (“Voters don’t notice these moments on the floor as much as, maybe, they used to,” he says, and he worries that the use of such tactics simply “reinforces the sense that this is a performative process rather than a serious policy process.”) Instead, he’s focusing on convincing his party’s bigger names to co-sponsor his legislation, which — while not an ironclad commitment — puts them on record supporting the proposals that they could eventually enact if they gain back enough power in Washington anytime soon. “It’s essential that we have a plan for when we take power back — we don’t know when that will be, but we need to be ready to roll legislatively, and it’s just a fact that campaigns are not equipped to prepare the kind of public policy that can be enacted,” he explained.

Schatz is hardly the only left-leaning senator who’s sought to make a point by convincing high-profile colleagues to sign onto legislation in the last two years: When Sanders introduced his own healthcare bill last September with 16 Senate co-sponsors (including Schatz and all five of the other potential White House hopefuls), the Vermonter often pointed to the number of colleagues supporting it as evidence of its increasing viability. But Schatz’s pushes don’t come with any whispers about what they might mean for his own presidential aspirations.

It’s all legislation that a liberal senator could have proposed four years ago, though it probably woundn’t have been given a serious second look. Now the political ground has shifted: As Democrats have embraced more progressive policy positions since Trump’s election, mainstream voters — not just left-wing activists — have embraced more of the concepts they have on offer, emboldening Schatz’s ongoing push.

Just as crucially, after Republicans’ 2017 tax legislation, the second-term senator said he and his colleagues no longer feel constrained by what he called the GOP’s “veneer of fiscal responsibility, where they could have tsk-tsk’ed us about, ‘What’s your pay-for?’.” So when it comes to education and healthcare funding measures, they see new political space in which to maneuver, where once very little existed. “Now the question becomes, ‘What are you going to do for the remainder of the population that’s not covered by ACA, or is currently paying too much? And there’s just no one, not even in the Senate who, on the Republican side, can look you in the face and say, ‘I’m not going to pass your bill because there’s no pay-for,’” Schatz said. “After what they did with that that tax bill, it’s been shown to be a sham and a fraud. So it frees us to say, you know, ‘We do not accept the premise that the biggest upward wealth transfer in human history can be done with borrowed money, but if you want to cover more kids, we’ve got to cut something.’ We just don’t buy it.”

Still, it’s one thing for potential presidential hopefuls to embrace progressive priorities ahead of a primary that’s likely to be, at least in part, a race to the left. This November’s midterms — featuring tough reelection campaigns for ten senators representing states where Trump won — provide another test entirely: whether lawmakers with more conservative constituencies can afford to sign onto such plans. The old conventional wisdom would suggest not; the Trump-era reality isn’t so clear: two of Schatz’s nine original Senate co-sponsors on his college affordability bill are up for reelection in Trump states, and both Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin appear to be electorally safe.

“I haven’t had a lot of difficulty convincing [colleagues of the proposals’ merit] because, again, you know, Joe Manchin wants college affordability too, right? The kind of DLC difference-splitting? It’s over,” Schatz said, referring to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which reached the apex of its influence under Bill Clinton.

“Colleagues are not quietly coming to me and saying, ‘Would you be careful? I’m in a tough race, this isn’t good for me,’” he continued. “I think the party is changing, and I think the country is changing. When I go out there across Hawaii, what people want is clarity, and what people want is seriousness about the issues. And, I mean, you look at Miss Ocasio-Cortez. What she said this morning is, ‘There’s nothing radical about moral clarity.’ And I thought,” — Schatz paused, arched his eyebrows, closed his mouth, and nodded slowly, suddenly looking especially serious — “There’s nothing radical about moral clarity.”

Progressive Senator Reshapes 2020 Race, Without Even Running