The Only Thing Harder Than Winning the Presidency

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley rules out a White House bid because he’d rather try to fix the Senate.

Jeff Merkley shuffles a stack of papers on a desk.
Sen. Jeff Merkley speaks with reporters on Sep. 24 in Washington. Win McNamee/Getty Images

It is only appropriate that Senate Democrats who’ve chosen not to run for president should be the ones hyping their announcements, since they, at this point, seem to be the outliers.
So it was on Monday night that Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley blasted out a notice: After talking with people from “every corner of the country” since President Donald Trump’s election, he would be making a “major announcement” about his 2020 plans the following morning.

The big news came in the form of a slickly produced four-minute video, in which he told the world that he would be running … for a third Senate term.

In the video, and in a conversation I had with him later Tuesday, he set a goal far more daunting and unlikely than being elected president: making the Senate a functioning legislative body.

“I’ve been wrestling with it for six months. It’s the most difficult decision I’ve ever had,” he told me of his choice between offices. “And here’s what I know: I know that we need bold, aggressive leadership in the Oval Office, but I also know we need bold, aggressive leadership in the Senate. The Senate has become a deep freeze. It is a graveyard for bills that come from the House, and if we’re going to take on these issues, we have to have a functioning Senate.”

These may sound like retrofitted excuses from someone with limited name recognition who realized that his path to the nomination, in a historically crowded primary field, would have been narrow. Merkley, one of the most progressive members of the Senate and the only senator to endorse Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary, insisted to me, though, that no one else’s entrance into the race factored into his decision. He said that being a middle-aged white man, in a party that’s moved away from middle-aged white men as its standard-bearers, wasn’t a factor either.

“I do believe,” he said, on the other hand, “that we will never again see a ticket of two white men.”

White men will always have a home in the United States Senate, of course. But to what end? When Merkley described the Senate as a legislative “graveyard,” it sounded like code for eliminating the 60-vote legislative filibuster so that Democrats could pass Medicare for all or a Green New Deal in 2021. But senators across the Democratic spectrum have been hesitant to go there. And, as Merkley told me, he’s not fully there yet, either.

“It’s about creating a conversation among my colleagues saying, we have to be able to act to be a competent legislative body in partnership with the House,” he told me. He said that there were “so many different ways to approach this.” Aside from using the existing resource of budget reconciliation, he said, senators could also look at a proposal he’s been pushing for years: a return of the “talking filibuster” as the minority’s only go-to tool for extending debate.

“You get rid of the [60-vote] supermajority [requirement] on everything except final passage,” he explained, “and then on final passage, if there’s ever a moment in the debate when the debate ends? You go to a simple majority vote.

“It makes it much more difficult and painful to do routine obstruction,” he continued. “The goal is to get back to a point where a supermajority hurdle is rare.” He also wants to clear more floor time for legislation, seeing as how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell devotes most floor time now to confirming nominees. His idea would be to put consideration of nominations on a clock.

But, he cautioned, “I’m not advocating for one particular path to be there.” It’s a conversation!

I asked why so many of his Senate Democratic colleagues, even while knowing that their agenda in the event of a unified Democratic government would be dead on arrival if the filibuster stayed in place, are loath to consider easing the rules. Some senators, he suggested, might have bought into the lore about how the Senate was designed to be a legislative black hole.

“It’s almost a sense of This was the way the Senate was intended to be,” he said. “Maybe they have in mind the apocryphal saying of Washington that the Senate’s a ‘cooling saucer.’ Historians say he didn’t say it. But if he did say it, it was a reference to six-year terms, indirect elections—it wasn’t a reference to making a supermajority body and basically putting it into a legislative deep freeze.”

Even in the best-case Democratic scenario for 2020, in which Democrats pick up both the Senate and the White House, Merkley will still be serving with a half-dozen or so Democratic colleagues who have gone through a competitive presidential primary and lost. Would any of those lingering tensions have a detrimental effect on the caucus’ ability to act?

“I don’t worry about it, because it’s something I can’t control,” he said. “I have not seen manifestations of stress and friction, at this point, of those who are considering running. Maybe that will emerge, maybe it exists and I haven’t seen it. But I think there is an understanding that we have a responsibility to keep those stresses, and any impact it might have on our effectiveness, outside of this building.”