‘You’ve got younger people and newer faces who have constituents empowering them to buck the normal trends…’
(Sahil Kapur, Bloomberg News) The Democratic nomination race is moving beyond stump speeches and fundraising pleas into a competition among progressives to push fundamental changes to the Constitution and Washington institutions.
Several top Democratic presidential candidates have lined up behind jettisoning the Electoral College, expanding the Supreme Court, killing the Senate filibuster and granting statehood to Washington D.C. — all of which would likely smooth the way for the policy proposals at the heart of their agendas.
Those ideas are likely to resonate with the core of Democratic voters still bubbling with anger over the election of President Donald Trump despite his loss in the national vote count, the ease with which he’s transformed the Supreme Court and federal judiciary, and the power held in the Senate by a cluster of sparsely populated GOP-dominated states.
Most are plans that have circulated among Democrats for decades without gaining much traction with party leaders, and they have little chance of success in the foreseeable future. But their re-emergence in the 2020 race is more evidence of the ideological and generational divide within the party’s base as candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris try to energize younger liberals while others like Sen. Amy Klobuchar give the appearance of a more centrist path to the nomination, despite her own far-left policy advocacy.
“You’ve got younger people and newer faces who have constituents empowering them to buck the normal trends. They’re saying, ‘Who cares if that’s how it was always done?” said Adrienne Elrod, a former spokeswoman for the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote in 2016 but lost in the Electoral College to Trump.
“But there’s still a good chunk of Democratic primary voters who don’t want major changes,” Elrod said. “They’re happy with the status quo as long as Donald Trump is not in office.”
It’s a tension that Democratic voters will have to reconcile in next year’s caucuses and primaries.
The debate has prompted Trump and other Republicans to describe Democrats as sore losers. In a series of tweets Wednesday, the president said “The Democrats are getting very ‘strange”‘ for suggesting such changes. He said campaigning to win the popular vote in a presidential election “is much easier & different than campaigning for the Electoral College.”
Warren received loud applause at a CNN town hall Monday in Mississippi when she called for getting rid of the Electoral College “to make sure that every vote counts.”
The following day, former Texas Rep. Robert Francis O’Rourke (“Beto”) told NBC News “there’s a lot of wisdom in that” idea. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday called the Electoral College a vestige “of a bygone era.”
The Electoral College, which gives each state electors equal to its representation in Congress and is decisive in presidential elections, is enshrined in the Constitution. Because each state has two senators, eliminating it would entail a lengthy and difficult process. A constitutional amendment to scrap the Electoral College passed the House in 1969 by a vote of 339 to 70 but was filibustered in the Senate.
The debate resurfaced after Democrat Al Gore lost the presidential election to Republican George W. Bush despite winning the popular vote. The 2016 election breathed new life into it after Clinton got almost 3 million more votes than Trump.
Compounding Democratic frustration with the system is that Bush and Trump went on to add four justices to the Supreme Court, solidifying a 5 to 4 conservative majority for the foreseeable future on big issues like eliminating campaign finance laws, bolstering gun rights and allowing voting restrictions.
Warren and O’Rourke have been joined by Harris of California and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York in expressing openness to expanding the Supreme Court beyond its current configuration of nine justices, which was set by Congress in 1869. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who also supports eliminating the Electoral College, proposed a court where five justices are picked by Democrats, five are picked by Republicans, and the remaining five are chosen with unanimous consent of the other 10 members.
Buttigieg, 37, who would be the youngest president ever, “understands that we need to break from the politics of the past and that tinkering around the edges of a broken system is no longer a possibility,” said Lis Smith, his communications adviser.
The notion of so-called court packing has a long history. Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt unsuccessfully tried in 1937 to add more justices after several of his New Deal initiatives were struck down. Reviving it has caused discomfort among old-school Democrats.
“These are some monumental changes,” said Jim Manley, a lobbyist who served as spokesman for former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. “It’s something a lot of Democrats are going to think long and hard about. They’re not going to be rushed in to anything based on what folks are talking about on the campaign trail.”
Klobuchar has said she’s focused on winning and picking better judges. Sen. Michael Bennet, who is weighing a White House bid, when asked by The Washington Post about expanding the Supreme Court, said he doesn’t want to emulate “how cynical and how vicious” conservative Republicans have become.
In response to the Democratic debate, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he’ll offer a constitutional amendment to preserve the nine-member Supreme Court.
“Court packing is quickly becoming a litmus test for 2020 Democratic candidates as this ugly, winner-take-all rhetoric gains prominence in progressive circles,” Rubio wrote in a FoxNews.com op-ed published Wednesday.
Several Democrats also support eliminating the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation. That would make it easier to pass bills without bipartisan support in the chamber, where the least populous states are on equal footing with most populous.
But with Democrats now in the minority and facing little chance of gaining a large Senate majority in 2020, liberal activists have been pressing for a change.
Sen. Cory Booker said last month that he would oppose eliminating the filibuster. But he said on the progressive podcast Pod Save America that he’s open to ending the 60-vote threshold. “You fire a lot of people up on your podcast and they come to me,” he said on the podcast released Wednesday, and those people make “very practical arguments.”
Statehood for the nation’s capital and Puerto Rico also have been subjects of long debate and support within the Democratic Party. Both currently have non-voting delegates in the House. Statehood would add four members to the Senate, potentially all of them Democrats.
While the energy of the party may be concentrated on the left, there remains a path for traditionalists who don’t want to flip the table on the U.S. system. A case in point: former Vice President Joe Biden, who is 76 and hasn’t made his plans official, yet is at the top of the 2020 Democratic field in nearly every poll so far.
“The one overlying theme that all of these different structural policy ideas have is that they are trying to create a fairer system. Particularly when it comes to the Electoral College — it really is antiquated,” Elrod said. “It’s good that we’re having these discussions.”
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