How to Grow the Democratic Party with Senator Heidi Heitkamp

On this episode Sarah talks with Watson Senior Fellow and former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp. As the Democratic Party faces a divided government and nation, Senator Heitkamp is someone many people are turning to for ideas on how to move forward. Sarah and the Senator discuss the fallout from the Presidential election, as well as the strategic and philosophical debates that are happening right now within the Democratic Party.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


SARAH BALDWIN: From, the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. If you hoped the Twenty-Twenty election would provide a sense of unity and clarity in US politics, you probably came away from it disappointed. And in an effort to figure out who voted for whom and why, many politicians, activists, scholars, and journalists seem to be splitting up Americans even further. Urban and rural, rich and poor, college educated and not.

One person who's not so interested in this cataloging of divisions is Watson senior fellow and former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp.

HEIDI HEITKAMP: Instead of looking at urban progressives or rural conservative Democrats, guess what? The people that we serve, they want good educations for their kids. They want their parents to have good health care as they're aging. They want to make sure that no one lives in poverty. They all want the same thing. And we should be focused on our goals, and then how do you deliver those, regardless of where you live in this country.

SARAH BALDWIN: As the Democratic Party faces a divided government and nation, Senator Heitkamp is someone many people are turning to for ideas on how to move forward. On this episode, we talked about the election, of course, as well as the strategic and philosophical debates that are happening right now within the Democratic Party.

I started by asking her to help make sense of why Trump isn't conceding the election, and why so many Republicans are going along with him. Here's the Senator.

HEIDI HEITKAMP: What we really have seen with this election is where Joe Biden will break records, probably end up with 6 million more votes up in the popular vote count than Donald Trump. Donald Trump did very well, and he now is the Republican Party. And so all of these Republicans know this election's over. But they know that if they step into it and don't end well with this president, that's going to have consequences into the future.

I think that one of the results of this election is it has solidified the Republican Party as the Party of Trump.

SARAH BALDWIN: Yeah, I guess there was some hope that the cult of personality would emerge as being that. But I can't imagine that there aren't Republicans who would like to go back to being normal Republicans.

HEIDI HEITKAMP: Oh, I think there are. I mean, I always divide the Republican Party into three parts. One is the institutional, free trade, low taxes, chamber of commerce reduce regulation folks. The second one are the Tea Party. Kind of the hardcore conservative, don't spend money, welfare reform, hate Obamacare.

And then the third now has emerged, which is this populist kind of fringe, which Trump has really led without any fiscal discipline I mean, it's amazing when you think about how much money they've spent and how much debt they've run up. And that would have been absolutely not what you would expect the Republican Party to do.

And so I think it's going to be really hard for the Republicans to figure out what they're about. That's their challenge in the next four years. But as long as Donald Trump does what he says he's going to do, he immediately goes into, I'm running again in four years. And everybody in the Republican world has to then pay attention to him understand that his 70-plus million voters care about him, and they're going to listen to what he has to say. So he's going to be a dominant feature in the Republican Party.

I will say this about the transition. Joe Biden has-- I mean, I always have high expectations for Joe. He's a good friend. But he has exceeded, I think, almost everybody's expectations, mainly by demeanor. It's like, it does an OK, fine. He doesn't want to give me the money. We'll do it without the money. He doesn't want to give me the briefings. That's OK. Let's just all calm down. I'll be the president come inaugural day, and we'll fix what we need to fix in this country.

And he really has not taken the bait in a really positive way. And I think over the last four years we have all taken the bait. I mean, how many times have we all woken up and said, oh, he can't-- oh my god. Oh, whoa, whoa. And Biden just really has taken it to a level that I think is really smart, which is, yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. We're just going to keep doing what we're going to do.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, so speaking of the election, the results, as we know, did not deliver the landslide that many had predicted for Democrats. And what do you think the Democratic Party can learn from that?

HEIDI HEITKAMP: Well, I think there's a big debate. Obviously, the more progressive wing says that we did not have the policies that would have energized folks to support various candidates, a.k.a. they weren't progressive enough. That's not my position. My position is that we have to show how we can govern in. And all down the line, I've been doing a lot of analysis.

Had our Senate candidates done as well as Joe Biden in races like North Carolina, we'd have elected a Democratic Senator. And so there was some drop-off voting from Biden. And I think part of that was people seeing Biden as reliable as a change, but we weren't able to seal the deal downballot.

I have started a C4 called One Country Project. What that does is try to introduce the Democratic Party to rural America again, and rural America to the Democratic Party. We're in the process of evaluating how well we did. And where we did well, what were the messages that resonated and worked? And how can we build on some of the successes that Joe Biden had in actually getting more rural votes than Hillary did? How can we build on those successes?

Now, there's a big caveat there, because yes, Joe Biden got more rural votes, but so did Trump. And so Trump outpaced Joe Biden in many, many rural counties. And so we're going to have to evaluate that. And I don't have any data, although I can tell you that defunding the police and labeling Democrats as socialists had an effect in rural areas.

So Joe Biden was able to run as a Democrat without the label really taking him down, in part because I think he's been around a long time. And I also think that he was such a contrast in personality.

SARAH BALDWIN: There has been this leftward shift, or maybe it's more of an emergence of a more progressive wing of the Party. And I wonder if there is a way for, say, a Green New Deal to embrace your part of America, states like North Dakota, by offering solutions and alternatives to fossil fuel extraction or greenhouse emissions, rather than just saying, no more fracking.

HEIDI HEITKAMP: We have, over the last, probably, 10, 15 years done polling in North Dakota. North Dakota is a state that is very positive about fossil fuels we make a lot of money in the oil patch. Plus we have a big coal reserve that was is used to generate electricity, which is then exported out of our state.

So against that backdrop, you might think that people were, when you talked about climate, the reaction was it's a hoax, right? But 65% to 70% of the people when they're polled in North Dakota say that climate is a concern of theirs, and something needs to be done. They just don't see the solutions that are being proposed, which is abolition, which is we're going to do this tomorrow. They don't see that, number one, as practical.

Plus they're concerned about their utility bills. They're concerned about their jobs. And so there is a great opportunity, I think, to look to different kinds of strategies to address climate. One project that I'm working on right now is carbon sequestration. I did a lot of work on that when I was in the Senate. Did a bill that expanded the tax credits for capturing and containing CO2. Because every time you turn the soil over, you release carbon.

So what can we do that is going to, number one, be great for soils, but also get the support of farmers in a way that you're talking about, which is a carrot, not a stick? It's not mandating this is what we're going to do. Is that here's a solution, and this can be something that you can participate in and can make a difference in terms of your livelihood.

SARAH BALDWIN: So at this point, I guess we won't know until January which way the Senate is going to go. But let's say if Republicans do retain control of the Senate, do you think Biden should use executive orders as liberally as Trump did to get his plan into action?

HEIDI HEITKAMP: I think it's inevitable. And I can't tell you how many lectures I had to listen to from people like Ted Cruz about Obama's executive orders. Now, Trump put executive orders on steroids. And I think the expectation is, look, you guys didn't have a lot of complaining when Trump issued these executive orders. This is what's going to happen.

Now, do I think that's a good way to govern? The answer is no. The Republicans may have a newfound love for article 1 powers, but they've really lost the moral high ground in the last four years.

SARAH BALDWIN: There's a push among, let's say, urban progressives to make Puerto Rico a state, make DC a state, to change the makeup of the Senate. What are your thoughts on that?

HEIDI HEITKAMP: Well, I think that both of them should be a state. I think that people who live in those jurisdictions deserve representation. They're Americans. Puerto Rico elects Republican governors. I mean, there is this idea that Puerto Rico somehow would be a huge Democratic pickup.

I think that we shouldn't disenfranchise any Americans from fully participating in governing. And so, to me, it's not about changing the makeup of the Senate. It's always be careful what you ask for. When Hawaii and Alaska came in, Alaska was perceived to be the Democratic state, and Hawaii the Republican state. That flipped. And so these are long-term solutions and not temporary political outcomes.

When we started One Country Project, a lot of people thought we should call it the Rural America Project, the Rural Democratic Project. And I said, no. I want to call it the One America Project. Because instead of looking at urban progressives or rural conservative Democrats, guess what? The people that we serve, they all want the same thing.

They want good educations for their kids. They want their parents to have good health care as they're aging. They want to make sure that no one lives in poverty. We have so much in common in terms of our goals. And we should be focused on our goals, and then how do you deliver those, regardless of where you live in this country.

And I think if be just yanked out of that red-blue stuff and start talking about how we're going to reunite this country in common cause to improve the economic outcomes for everyone.

SARAH BALDWIN: You've been in public service for a long time. And that brings up two questions for me. One is, why did you go into politics in the first place? And how have you retained your good nature?

HEIDI HEITKAMP: You know, it's interesting because I didn't start out in politics. I started out in public policy. As a college student, I was very involved in-- this is going to age me-- in North Dakota's ratification of the ERA. I mean, back in the '70s.

And then, taking a look at what was happening, we had landfills that were spontaneously combusting. You couldn't eat the fish out of the Great Lakes. And we saw this emergence of the environmental movement. And so I became very involved.

In fact, I have a specialty degree from Lewis and Clark in environmental law. And my goal always was, as you look at how you can address the challenges of the externalities, right? Which is the air that we all breathe, and now this challenge and this crisis of climate. How do you develop strategies to fix major problems like that?

What happened for me was I worked on Capitol Hill for something called the Environmental Study Conference, which was a Hill group that studied environmental law and did briefings, and then worked at EPA. And a funny thing happened on the way to implementing public policy, and that was called an election. And then, all of a sudden, all of that progress that had been made on clean air and clean water really was being challenged at the time by the Reagan administration.

And I said, look, I think it's clear that you can't do public policy without understanding political power. And so my idea was I was going to be chief of staff to a Senator or campaign manager to a Senator, and then basically got convinced to run when I was 28. And for me, politics is a means to an end. It's not an end itself. And I think there's a lot of people who see political power.

And I think Mitch McConnell would be a great example of that. Political power is all about power and not getting things done. And to me, you do the misery of politics so that you can actually improve conditions for people in the public.

SARAH BALDWIN: You're the first woman from North Dakota elected to the US Senate, and Kamala Harris is the first woman to be vice president. Is gender still relevant? Like, when do you think we'll stop saying first woman?

HEIDI HEITKAMP: People always say, well, what is your goal as you look at gender? I said that when a woman is elected, they don't say, oh, wow, a woman did that. Or when a woman becomes a CEO, they say, wow, yeah, she's a woman. And to me, at the end of the day, the best kind of leadership in this country is diverse leadership from the standpoint of life experiences.

Two years ago, there was a record number of young women elected to the Democratic caucus over in the House. I wanted to remind people, don't just look at them as women. They're young moms. They're young women. They come from the military. They come from the CIA. Look at their life experiences. Do not just pigeonhole them into one kind of dynamic.

And I think that the arc of the life experiences, whether it's, in Kamala's case, being the daughter of immigrants, and coming from a position of power as a prosecutor and as a state AG, that's just as important as her being a woman. Or her being an Asian woman, or an African-American woman. We just have to quit looking at people in one dimension.

And one of the things that I think I brought to the Senate wasn't just that I was the first woman. I grew up in a town of 90 people. Rural America is what I know. And there aren't a lot of people who had that life experience. My dad didn't get to go to high school because he had to work on the farm. And my mom worked her whole life. As so I think these are the things that define me as much as being a woman.

SARAH BALDWIN: I wonder if you think-- just thinking about the state of the nation and the state of our institutions. Do you think that public trust and a return to some of the norms that have been distorted, do you think that can be restored? Are you optimistic?

HEIDI HEITKAMP: I think that's one of the major goals of Joe Biden. But I also think that we need to look at why for years we thought things were the way they were, and then we found out it was on the honor system. I don't know how many times I said, well, he can't do that. And then you'd look. Yeah, he could. As long as there was no checks and balances, as long as there was no kind of reply or response. And so Trump has upended all of that. And so there needs to be a firewall, a legislative firewall, a protection built into these norms and institutions.

Another great example is using the White House for political purposes. I mean, because it's never been done. And then you find out just because it's never been done doesn't mean it can't be done.

And I think Joe Biden is an institutionalist. I think that he is running to re-establish these norms. But I think it's also incumbent on Congress to take a look at where do we need to strengthen these guardrails.

SARAH BALDWIN: You've been named as a possible candidate for Secretary of Agriculture in President Biden's cabinet. Do you have anything to say about that?

HEIDI HEITKAMP: I've spent my whole life in rural America. Lot of people, I think they expect that when a Senator, in my case, doesn't get re-elected, you're going to go to Washington and live there. That's the last place that I thought about living. I moved back to North Dakota.

But I see a diminished capacity of economic resilience in rural America that's not good for the country. And so I also do not like this regional divide where we're talking about red America is rural America. And I know both the President-elect and the Vice President-elect very well, and I'm willing to help out in any way I can to bring this country back together and unify this country.

If there is a role for someone like me, whether it's in that as Secretary of Agriculture or another role, and it involves reunifying this country and improving outcomes for rural America, that is a continuation of my life's work.

SARAH BALDWIN: Senator Heitkamp, you've been a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for a while now. And I wonder if anything has struck you or surprised you.

HEIDI HEITKAMP: I spent a semester at Harvard, too. I've been at Harvard and I've been at Brown. There is a distorted view that people outside of those institutions have about your students. They think they're all starry-eyed, there's not an ounce of practicality among them. That is absolutely not true.

And I will tell you that my experience the last two years in working with students, whether it's at UND, or whether it's at Brown, or whether it's at Harvard, is that I have so much hope for the future of this country because I've met the future leaders. And they're smart, they're practical, they're principled. I wish everybody in the country had a chance to have the conversations that I've had. People would feel a lot better about where we're headed.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, that is heartening. I'm so happy to hear you say that. It's been such a pleasure to talk with you today. Thank you so much again.



SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Alina Coleman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin. You can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps others find us.

For more information about this and other shows, go to watson.brown.edu. Thanks for listening, and tune in two weeks for another episode of Trending Globally.


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