Since Donald Trump shocked the world by winning the presidency in November, Democrats have had a tendency to bury their heads in the sand.
They want very badly to attribute their defeat to external factors, but the truth is they ceded a lot of basic political turf to Trump and his Republican Party in the last election. Their campaigns, up and down the ballot, had the feel of a party satisfied with communicating only to the parts of the electorate that already agreed with them.
If they are to make their way back to power at any level in Washington, they’ll have to recapture the spirit of reform that helped animate a series of political takeovers in recent decades. Trump ran on draining the swamp. So did Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Newt Gingrich, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner all became speaker of the House by leading campaigns that promised to clean up Washington.
As freshman Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., told me in a Sidewire chat on Friday, Trump’s failure to institute real political reforms early in his presidency has created a gigantic opening for Democrats to seize that mantle. Khanna would like to see his party reject corporate money and for the country to institute term limits on members of Congress. I personally am not in favor of term limits, and I am somewhat conflicted on what our political funding system should look like, but Khanna is pointing in the right direction for Democrats.
He seems to understand that offering ideas to reform the political system is important not only on a substantive level but in terms of sending a signal to the American public that the status quo isn’t good enough.
“We have a trust deficit in this country,” he said in the text chat. “Folks don’t trust politicians, media leaders, corporate leaders or big institutions. It’s why Bernie’s message and Trump’s drain-the-swamp message resonated.”
And, he added, instituting some reforms “would go a long way in convincing people that politicians aren’t beholden to campaign interests.”
When Democrats and reformer Republicans argue that the system needs to be rid of big money, the counterargument is usually that such limitations are an infringement on free speech. And the Supreme Court, of late, has sided with the First Amendment crowd.
That doesn’t mean that the system we have is the right one — or that the right of free speech supersedes the sanctity of our political system completely in all cases. There are existing limits on our free speech, such as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ formulation that shouting “fire” in a theater is not protected. The case that the potential or actual corruption of our politics is an imminent threat to our security hasn’t been honed well enough to win over a majority of justices, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be.
Leaving aside campaign-finance issues, there are any number of reforms that members of Congress and other political leaders could embrace to win back the confidence of the American public. That’s true both on the broad policy level and within the party rules for nominating presidential candidates.
Khanna suggests that embracing reform agendas could be a point of contrast for candidates in primary elections as well as in general elections. Let’s face it, the leadership of both parties in Washington is deeply indebted to the donors who stock their campaign war chests with enough money that it can be doled out to other incumbents and challengers in exchange for fealty during the legislative season.
The leadership in Congress won’t change unless there’s demand from the rank and file — and that won’t happen until a cost is associated with supporting the status quo. Democrats found out the danger in doing that at the presidential level — where the party nominee in 2016, Hillary Clinton, essentially chose not to offer a political reform platform — in the face of Trump’s promises to take a buzzsaw to Washington’s influence industry.
Members of Congress, who write laws not just for the country but for their own conduct, haven’t felt enough pressure to clean their own houses. But at a time when voters clearly want a fair shake from the public and financial sectors — and a sense that the rules aren’t rigged against them — there’s tremendous opportunity for one party or the other to rewrite a handful of laws and rules to address those desires. Trump and Republicans in Congress have given Democrats room to run on a serious reform platform in 2018 and beyond.
It will just take a willingness to risk the uncertainty of moving away from the status quo. To paraphrase Trump, what do they have to lose?
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.