One Democrat in the race seems serious about governing, and it’s not Bernie Sanders

All the best policy ideas in the world won't matter if they can be vetoed by Mitch McConnell or Neil Gorsuch.

CREDIT: Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
CREDIT: Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Whatever you think of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the frumpy Vermont senator deserves credit for expanding the substantive ambition of the Democratic presidential field. Sanders’ unexpectedly strong 2016 primary campaign proved that there is a hunger for big ideas like Medicare for All within the Democratic electorate, and it’s now likely that whoever the 2020 Democratic nominee is, they will support some form of universal single-payer health care.

Yet, for all of Sanders’ capacious vision, he told CBS News on Tuesday that he’ll try to cram it all in a tiny procedural box.

The stakes surrounding the filibuster are extraordinarily high. Democrats could have a blowout election year in 2020 — capturing Senate seats in places like Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, and South Carolina — and still not reach the 60 seat supermajority necessary to break a Republican filibuster.


And, so long as Republicans have the power to filibuster, Democrats’ entire agenda will be reduced to fiscal policy. There will be no new laws expanding voting rights — or any civil rights legislation of any kind, for that matter. No legislation regulating any industry. No protections for unions or other laws protecting works. And the elected branches will be entirely at the mercy of a rogue Supreme Court.

Nor is Sanders alone among Democratic contenders in his defense of one of the Senate’s many anti-democratic institutions. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) says he will “personally resist” efforts to get rid of the filibuster. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) even said that she regrets changing the Senate’s rules in 2013 to prevent Republicans from blocking President Obama’s nominees.

It is the curse of the Senate that so many of its members believe that they belong to a grand debating society, and not a malapportioned immorality where democracy goes to die.

Compare Sanders’ remarks to those of a much more obscure presidential candidate. In many ways, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 campaign resembles Sanders’ 2016 campaign — except that the young mayor is even more of a long shot to win the party’s nomination. Yet, if Sanders’ unlikely 2016 bid was characterized by its substantive ambition, Buttigieg distinguishes himself by his willingness to speak uncomfortable procedural truths.

Buttigieg’s full remarks on the subject are worth watching in full (they begin about 23 minutes into a town hall you can watch at this link). An audience member asks Buttigieg whether, as president, he would be willing to add four seats to the Supreme Court if a Republican majority that includes a stolen seat sets out to thwart Buttigieg’s entire legislative agenda. The question provokes a combination of gasps, murmurs, applauds, and uncomfortable laughter from the rest of the audience.


Yet, while Buttigieg admits that he’s “not reached a considered position on the issue of court packing,” he also recognizes that the existential threats to democracy presented by men like Neil Gorsuch may require a proportional response. “I don’t think we should be laughing at it,” Buttigieg tells his ambitious questioner, before acknowledging that court-packing is “no more a shattering of norms than what’s already been done to get the judiciary to where it is today.”

After stating his ambivalence about court packing, the mayor then rattles a list of reforms he is prepared to endorse right away. Including redistricting reforms, getting rid of the Electoral College, full voting rights for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, and potentially a constitutional amendment to overrule the Supreme Court’s money in politics decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

A constitutional amendment is almost certainly off the table — the threshold for amending the Constitution is so high as to make it impossible if any meaningful political faction opposes that amendment. But Congress has the power to require every state to draw legislative districts with a non-partisan commission. It has the power to admit Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia as states. And it has the power, if needed, to add more seats to the Supreme Court. There’s also a proposal, known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, that could potentially abolish the Electoral College’s relevance without an amendment.

The striking thing about Buttigieg’s thinking in this space is that his ideas are commensurate to the threats facing American democracy — or at least they are in the same ballpark. Admitting DC and Puerto Rico as states won’t fix the problem where each person in Wyoming has 68 times as much Senate representation as a person in California, but it could help prevent the Senate from permanently falling in to Republican hands. Packing the Supreme Court is an awesome and dangerous proposal that would destroy the legitimacy of the federal judiciary if implemented. But a credible threat to pack the court may scare Chief Justice John Roberts away from decisions that would skew elections and unfairly lock Democrats out of power.

Democrats must think in these terms if they wish to restore democracy to a nation with an unelected president, a Senate that gives so much extra representation to small Republican states that Democrats soon lose control of it permanently, and a Supreme Court whose membership is determined by unelected presidents and a rigged Senate.

Big substantive ideas aren’t enough. You can have the best health policy in the world, but it won’t mean a thing if the United States does not have free and fair elections.