Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar started her presidential campaign amid February snow showers a mile up the Mississippi River from a rebuilt bridge. The I-35W Mississippi River Bridge collapsed in 2007 and reopened a year later, after federal politicians reached across the aisle to hasten construction.
For anyone who didn’t pick up on the symbolism of announcing a presidential run in this location, Klobuchar made sure to explain near the end of her speech: “Let us cross the river of our divides and walk across our sturdy bridge to higher ground.”
This type of call for a unified, rosy America has been a hallmark for Democratic politicians in recent elections. In 2016, Hillary Clinton based her campaign around being “stronger together.” Barack Obama, in 2008, had “Yes We Can.”
But can a unity message be authentic in an era when Trump has changed the political landscape?
The messages go beyond Obama. Bill Clinton had a Klobuchar feel in 1996 with a slogan, “Building a bridge to the 21st century,” and when George H.W. Bush died earlier this year, he was eulogized as a unifier. Obama, though, may have taken the unity messaging to a peak. He used “Yes We Can” throughout the 2008 Democratic primary and turned it into a phenomenon by the general election. It fit the circumstances: He was running to be America’s first black president and at a time when Americans were struggling together with a recession and the financial crisis.
Then Obama’s vision quickly dissipated. He failed to get bipartisan support for the Affordable Care Act. The government shut down because of partisan squabbles. Then Donald Trump came along.
Though Trump preached the need for unity on election night after he won—and for this year’s State of the Union—he spent his campaign aiming to please a base, while singling out enemies.
The numerous Democratic candidates—20 and rising—are now split between messages of building a resistance or building unity to achieve their goal of defeating Trump.
Few candidates have emphasized the togetherness vision with as much repetition and enthusiasm as Beto O’Rourke, who made his first speech in El Paso after officially declaring his candidacy in March. In a fiery but playful tone, O’Rourke quoted Martin Luther King Jr., saying El Pasoans understand that living in America is to be “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny,” and proclaimed his campaign “a campaign for America. Everyone in America.”
Since then, O’Rourke has traveled the country, espousing the same messages.
“We’ll do everything within our power for one another, for this great country and for every generation that follows,” O’Rourke said in Keokuk, Iowa. The opening page of his campaign website includes a photo of a sweating O’Rourke and the motto, “We’re all in this together.”
Some critics have questioned these messages. O’Rourke has been called “the candidate for vapid morons.” Longtime progressive columnist Paul Waldman wrote for The American Prospect that, while he thought O’Rourke has been sincere, “Anyone who thinks the next Democratic president will get any support from congressional Republicans for any important legislative agenda item is either not being honest, or they’re simply a fool.”
Klobuchar has not dealt with as much brush-back over her messaging, despite clinging to the same themes of unity. She ranked as the fifth-most bipartisan Democrat in the Senate from 2017 to 2019 and similarly high in other sessions, according to a bipartisan index compiled by the Lugar Center and the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy, illustrating a substantial record of performing for both sides.
“She is a centrist person and she switches both ways,” said Rita Kirk, a public affairs professor at Southern Methodist University and a consultant to CNN for recent presidential elections. “This is a contrast move more than anything else to show there is another way, and a lot of Americans are tired of the rancor.”
O’Rourke’s and Klobuchar’s campaign teams did not respond to a request for comment.
Big-picture calls for unity for a candidate like Warren, said Lynn Vavreck, UCLA’s Marvin Hoffenberg professor of American politics and author of several books on political campaigns, would have the opposite effect on promoting authenticity. She noted Warren’s nature “is to argue and have big ideas and fight to convince people that they are feasible.” Warren’s rallies have been peppered with the word “fight,” and she has singled out “rich guys” for “waging class warfare against hard-working people for decades.”
The same applies for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (by far the least bipartisan senator from 2017 to 2019, according to the Lugar Center’s index). Earlier this year at an MLK Day rally in Columbia, S.C., in front of the same crowd New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker told, “There’s not a right or left way to move forward,” the tone switched dramatically with Sanders. He talked about the need to take on the political and the economic establishment. The central theme of his campaign has been political revolution, as it was in 2016.
So far, Sanders has paced the field in donations and is second to Joe Biden in polling. Vavreck said a campaign built on unity doesn’t help distinguish candidates at a time when they need to use any type of messaging to stand out.
“It’s an easy message to go to because it is the opposite of Trump,” she said. “But I think the problem with that is they’re not running against Donald Trump right now. Running the next election isn’t the way to win this election.”
Still, Vavreck wouldn’t expect someone like Sanders or Warren to back away from their fight-driven approaches if one of them wins the primary. Should one of them take the nomination, the resulting general election against Trump may lack the rhetoric of promised compromise America has routinely seen: an election where no one tries to bridge the divide.