Senator Dick Durbin Explains 2016, Looks to 2020

The Institute of Politics and Public Service (GIPPS) at Georgetown's McCourt School hosted Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) for a conversation about the new Senate Democratic agenda on February 4. Moderated by GIPPS Executive Director Mo Elleithee, the conversation focused on the global rise of authoritarianism, the roots of the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, and the renewed crisis in Venezuela.

Durbin (SFS ‘66, L ‘69) has served as assistant Democratic leader since 2005 and Senate Democratic whip since 2007. In Congress, Durbin is the ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration and has long been an immigration advocate and defender of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.


The senator was introduced by GUSA President and DACA beneficiary Juan Martinez, who cited Durbin as a personal hero for his work on immigration. But, the conversation began with an international focus—a reflection on the global rise of authoritarianism. Durbin gave a speech at the Oxford Union in May 2018, in which he cited the combined economic, political, and social frustrations of global citizens toward their government to the shift toward authoritarianism. “This tendency is always there, lying below the surface,” he said, “and it is what people turn to in frustration.”

The common perception that Millennial generation will not be more financially successfully than its predecessors, that politicians are spending their time yelling at each other instead of getting things done, that the system is rigged—all of these have created a desire for someone who can consolidate power and make decisions, Durbin said. In the United States, he explained, this laid the foundation for Trump’s 2016 election to the presidency.

In considering the 2016 election, Durbin argued that there was a political and economic component that centered on disappointment with the limited change effected by the Obama administration and on the persistent inability of wage growth to keep up with rising productivity.

However, Durbin insisted that it was important to not forget the cultural component of such frustration. “There was a clear split,” he explained, “between Clinton and Trump voters in an exit poll about whether the voter believed that improving opportunities for women, minorities, and LGBTQ groups was good for America.” According to Durbin, many of his own constituents in rural Illinois are among those who believe that some of the tenets of social change that make up the Democratic agenda are a threat to their lifestyles and their jobs.

When asked by Elleithee whether the country is at an inflection point where Americans should be questioning the country’s fundamental norms, Durbin replied with a confident “yes.” He cited Trump’s strong message against the media and courts, the nation’s distaste for the “bidding wars” that represent our electoral campaigns, and the Washington Post’s recent Super Bowl ad, all of which he believes are contributing to shifting opinions about democracy.

When asked his opinion of the upcoming State of the Union address and Elleithee’s prediction that the next two years will largely be “Trump versus the Senate minority,” Durbin responded unabashedly. “When it comes to equality and opportunity,” he insisted, “we can’t back off on who we are.”

The senator argued that the party would continue addressing cultural issues head-on, educating people about the rights of women, and striking down xenophobic, sexist, and bigoted rhetoric. “That is what we believe in,” Durbin explained, “If I didn’t think this party was moving forward in those fields, I would not be a part of it.”

He praised the diversity among newly elected House Democrats, saying that it successfully “sends the message that the Democratic Party is open for business, whoever you are.” And, Durbin expressed unequivocal support for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA-12), who he said has successfully unified House Democrats in the showdown against the president’s government shutdown.

But, Durbin also emphasized the centrality of healthcare policy to the Senate Democratic agenda. The focus is on the term “pre-existing condition,” a key component of the Democratic Party’s efforts to secure healthcare for eligible individuals under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. Medicare-For-All is another sticking point on the Democratic agenda.

According to Durbin, a recent poll found popular support for such a system at 70 percent. But, he noted that popular concern regarding the actual transition to Medicare-For-All remains significant. To tackle this challenge, Durbin argued that the Democratic Party needs to take a three-pronged approach: convince Americans that they are not going to be hurt during the rollout period, provide third-party validation by doctors and nurses, and be patient throughout this entire process.

As the event drew to a close, Georgetown students were given the opportunity to ask the senator some questions. In response to a question about the current presidential crisis in Venezuela and the split in the Democratic Party over U.S. involvement, Durbin expressed his opinion that the younger, progressive incumbents were too quick to jump to conclusions, basing their policy approaches to the crisis on the respective stances of the Trump administration and the Cuban government.

One student asked the senator about the crowded slate of Democratic 2020 presidential candidates. Durbin reiterated that he has no ambitions to run but believes that the variety and number of candidates is healthy. Moreover, he directed attention to Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who recently formed an exploratory committee to run for president.

But, what he looks for most of all in a candidate, Durbin said, is whether “they have the values to get things done, whether they are credible leaders who will be able to make a difference as president.”