By Philip Rucker
Democratic lawmakers mired in partisan gridlock. Unmovable presidents. Upstart political newcomers.
All are popular words the Democratic Party is hoping to escape as the 2020 cycle gets underway.
One senator who is helping Democrats ponder their strategy for a year in which their party faces another convincing presidential election setback is not a presidential hopeful but he is already planning to drop by the White House.
Two-term Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy is retiring this year, and his staff has kept busy thinking about what to do about that White House down the road. Leahy’s team has spread a broad list of potential successors out around D.C.
Many of the new faces and the familiar names in the Democratic leadership pipeline are obvious. There are the younger members of the Democratic caucus, some who were only elected in the past few years, including Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
There are also older and more established senators, the veterans like New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who have been around the party’s turnstiles for decades.
There is Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who has been around as long as the White House itself, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, whose profile has risen considerably in recent years. There is Amy Klobuchar, who became only the fourth woman elected to Congress in Minnesota’s history. And there are others – three potential opponents for the White House in 2020, Corey Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, are among them.
The options for steering clear of the White House, particularly in states where a Democratic candidate is almost certain to do very well in the 2020 election, including Iowa, Pennsylvania and Ohio, are not so obvious.
So early in the process, Leahy has decided to create a new political operation, focusing on campaigns and elections, and will leave the Senate with two of his Senate seats still up for grabs, one in 2018, the other in 2020.
The new group is called Leahy Strategies and will be headed by former White House spokesman Eric Schultz, a longtime aide to Vice President Joe Biden, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and the Bill Clinton White House.
Since the 2016 election, Leahy, 80, a soft-spoken senior senator who has always been comfortable trading frank words with reporters, has frequently sounded like someone who is feeling the pressure of the Democratic Party’s mounting problems.
One place where he has tried to make amends with Democrats who think he has done a poor job of representing his centrist views is with a speech he gave in New Hampshire last year, praising the state as the backbone of the country’s progressive movement and celebrating its progressive values as the pillars of American democracy.
“These are not the values of my generation,” Leahy said. “They are the values of yours.”
Like the appeal of Congress to younger generations, Leahy knows he cannot survive in the Senate without reaching out to a younger crowd. And he clearly recognizes that the political world has moved in a very different direction since 2016. The political careers of dozens of younger Democrats fell in the wake of the 2016 election.