On the trail in New Hampshire, Democrats seem caught in the middle on democracy reform
Bowe, a freelance producer in New Hampshire covering the Democratic primary for Public News Service, is working on a documentary series about democracy reform. His last film, "Democracy Through the Looking Glass," examined media coverage of the 2016 campaign.
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Given another wave of myopic media coverage of our national conversation that is a presidential campaign, even political news junkies may be forgiven for only being aware of the horse-race poll numbers here and in Iowa.
In this state alone, more than 1,000 campaign events have been hosted by the Democratic field, which is down to a dozen now but once numbered more than twice that. Sure, health care and climate change are dominating the conversations. But after covering about 150 of these events I'm convinced that, when taken together, all the different anxieties about what's made our democracy dysfunctional are rivaling those top two concerns.
But a cacophony has been created by the sheer volume of concerns expressed — about difficulties accessing the ballot box, outright voter suppression, the fairness of the Electoral College, money's influence over politics and partisan gerrymandering, to name a few — along with the dizzying number of candidates and their various positions.
The result: There's no sense of consensus in the field about what should be on a coherent agenda of reform, except that it should start with enactment of HR 1, the comprehensive political process and ethics bill passed by the Democratic House last year and then buried in the Republican Senate.
Instead, fault-lines appear to be forming — with an emphasis on uniting Americans around a set of common values pitted against demands for more immediate structural change. It's a fissure that, if not closed, will be exploited by those benefiting from this dysfunctional system. To accomplish meaningful reform, the Democrats — and democracy reform advocates in general — must balance policy solutions that both unite Americans and affect meaningful political change. This is a delicate balancing act, to say the least.
Every presidential campaign features at least one moment when a candidate blurts out a provocative or extreme policy proposal that all the rivals feel compelled to respond to, if not answer for. This time it's been called the "Beto moment," O'Rourke's emphatic and polarizing call for gun control just before the former Texas congressman's campaign imploded. There hasn't been such a moment about fixing the system, but I've witnessed a few close calls.
Tom Steyer advocated for national referendums to resolve public policy issues, sounding unconcerned those could be used to settle such polarizing cultural wedge issues as abortion rights. And during her brief campaign Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York suggested — especially if taken out of context — that packing the Supreme Court was "not a bad idea."
In other words, Democrats have handed some rhetorical whoppers to opponents of democratic reforms. And such statements, as Andrew Yang pointed out when citing his reasons for opposing calls to abolish the Electoral College, send a very bad message: "If you lose by tools literally ingrained in the Constitution and then say, 'Hey, we should change the rules,' what does that say? 'I can't win by the rules and you're trying to change them.'"
It doesn't take a political messaging guru to figure out what the Democrats need to do differently if they really want to advance the cause of democracy reform from the White House starting next year. But this being New Hampshire — which draws voices all along the ideological spectrum no matter which party is staging a competitive primary — it was a conservative who put a fine point on it the other day.
Since they will need to be part of any lasting federal policy change, "How do you win Republicans?" was the simple question veteran GOP consultant Frank Luntz put to former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.
One candidate who has much more experience in navigating the minefields of presidential town halls than Patrick, a late entrant, is Pete Buttigieg, who recently completed his time as mayor of South Bend, Ind.
In the earliest days of the campaign, part of what created Buttigieg's buzz was the ideas he floated to reorganize the Supreme Court and abolish the use of electoral votes to choose the president. While he has not backed away from these positions, they are no longer part of his regular stump speech.
When he does bring up the Electoral College, he softens talk about simply scrapping the 230-year-old institution with more careful rhetoric, emphasizing the need to convince the vast majority of Americans that changing the electoral vote rules will help "unify and not polarize" the country.
In an interview this month, Buttigieg demonstrated how he is working to thread the needle between promoting ideas designed to enhance national consensus for fixing the system and urging structural changes that will intensify disagreements.
"Contemplating major democratic reforms certainly is bold, but I don't think it has to be polarizing," Buttigieg said. "It's not something to be done lightly. It's not something to be done without deliberation and persuasion."
That's why, he said, the process for amending the Constitution "exists in the first place. We shouldn't be afraid to turn to it, especially when things are going on. Like manipulation of elections and the role of money in politics that simply cannot be defended in principle."
Buttigieg later added that democratic system changes need to be done in a way "that actually invites more people into the process, instead of defining our politics by what we reject."
With the primary — one of the defining votes of the nomination battle — less than four weeks away and the race very much still in flux, candidates are starting to look for the "differentiator" that will separate them from the pack.
Let's hope they don't use the debate over the best approaches to democratic reform as the purity test. The widespread bipartisan recognition our political system is broken can be a unifying call that can expand a winning coalition in November. But Democrats looking to break through the clutter by taking polarizing positions on reform — or by using one of their own ideas as a cudgel to pummel an opponent for not taking that position — will impact more than who eventually wins the nomination.
It also could prove to have long-term problematic repercussions for efforts to move our democratic republic in the 21st century.