Chuck Todd posed an instructive question toward the close of the second of this week’s two Democratic presidential debates: “President Obama in his first year wanted to address both health care and climate. And he could only get one signature issue accomplished; it was, obviously, health care. He didn’t get to do climate change. You may only get one shot… What is that first issue for your presidency?”
The ten candidates who debated Thursday night in Miami generally gave appealing, if predictable, answers. There were mentions of ending gun violence (California Congressman Eric Swalwell), addressing climate change (Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper) and delivering “a $1,000 freedom dividend for every American adult starting at age 18” (former tech executive Andrew Yang).
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand spoke of “passing a family bill of rights that includes a national paid leave plan, universal pre-K, affordable daycare, and making sure that women and families can thrive in the workplace no matter who they are,” and California Senator Kamala Harris announced “Oh, I like that.” Then Harris, the candidate who turned in the strongest debate performance of the evening, and did more than any other contender to advance her bid, mentioned a plan to enact a middle-class and working-families tax cut.
The candidates who referenced specific issues and agenda items did not go to the heart of the matter on the priorities question. The issues they focused on were important. But they did not touch on the structural challenges that have been exposed over the last decade—a period when a Democratic president who had Democratic majorities in the House and Senate faced unprecedented partisan impediments in the initial years of his tenure, and then was hit with a level of obstruction so extreme that his Supreme Court nominee was denied a hearing.
In conventional political terms, Washington has been rendered dysfunctional. And that dysfunction must be addressed in order to open the way for the transformation policy changes that are needed.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders recognized the challenge in his response. He rejected “the premise that there’s only one or two issues out there” and spoke to the need for a broader approach. “We need a political revolution.” said the senator, repeating a theme of his 2016 and 2020 campaigns. “People have got to stand up and take on the special interests. We can transform this country.”
Confronting special interests is vital. But it is not the whole of what must be done. There is a next step, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg took that step. “We’ve got to fix our democracy before it’s too late,” he said. “Get that right [and] climate, immigration, taxes, and every other issue gets better.”
On a day when the United State Supreme Court issued a decision that made it harder to address the gerrymandering that thwarts the will of the people in congressional and legislative elections nationwide, Buttigieg recognized that a new president must address the structural flaws in the politics of a country where the man who loses the popular vote can become president.
The democracy reforms—securing voting rights, ending gerrymandering, getting big money out of politics, eliminating the Electoral College—will not come easily. And the next president won’t be able to focus on structural issues alone; climate change, inequality, questions of war and peace cannot be neglected.
I don’t doubt for a moment that other candidates—particularly Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Gillibrand (whose message on public funding of elections was a highlight of the debate); but, arguably, all of them—recognize this reality. What distinguishes Buttigieg is that he has made reform of a our democracy central to his run. He does not present himself as an absolutist; rather, he is someone who makes linkages. He points to structural change as a necessary first step in achieving major policy advances. He speaks in the terms that the Brennan Center for Justice uses when it suggests that democracy reform should be understood as a “First Agenda Item.”
There’s a growing recognition that responses to the flaws in our democracy have to be prioritized because the flaws in our democracy have begun to constrain our governance. They make it possible for Republicans with unpopular ideas and corrupt strategies to obstruct even able and popular Democratic presidents.
This focus on democratic reform is not a new theme for Buttigieg. From the start of his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, he has argued that “No issue that we care about—from gun safety to immigration, from climate to education to paid family leave—will advance easily unless our democracy is restored.” Writing earlier this year, in the journal Democracy, Buttigieg explained: “The stakes of this political season are much higher than those of any election, as the time has come to do something about the weakness of our democracy itself.”
The mayor described the crisis:
The whole story of American progress could be told as a lurching but unmistakable march toward political equality, approaching a day when every American’s vote truly matters. Yet in my lifetime, this progress has not just slowed but gone into retreat. As we know, voter ID laws, felon disenfranchisement, twisted registration requirements, and purges have diminished access to the vote. Meanwhile, many votes are successfully cast, yet mean little in the context of gerrymandered districts. The Electoral College effectively means that, in a state like Indiana, our votes for the presidency only matter every 40 years or so. At least we Hoosiers have it better than fellow American citizens in the District of Columbia or the territories, who have no vote at all for Senate and, almost more insultingly, vote for a delegate in Congress who, in turn, may not vote on the floor.
Buttigieg asked a set of fundamental questions: “When will we outgrow the Electoral College and become a nation where the people pick our President? Why are we loath to adjust the size of the House of Representatives, or act to ensure that voter registration is made either universal or obsolete? Who can rebut the premise that every American citizen ought to have two senators and a real member of Congress? And why are we afraid to push a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote?”
He acknowledged that “such reforms are ambitious.” But Buttigieg concluded,
Without such fundamental reform, we can’t fix the democracy deficit that helps give rise to fanatical congressmen and abusive presidencies. Such bold proposals also hold the key to something we will need in order to hold the attention of a new generation: an agenda that would mean as much in 2050 as in 2020. This is no time for meek plans, and Democrats who still fret over finding a meaningful party “message” should remember that it’s encoded in the very name of our party. After all, we are Democrats not least because we are democrats.