Did you ever have one of those moments when you read something and then you have to go back and read and reread it again, thinking you missed something in the first couple of reads?
Last week, was one of those huh? moments. I suspect that I was joined in the state of dumbfoundedness along with countless others when I read and reread summaries of the new reform plan of the House Democratic majority. (Note to self: the state of dumbfoundedness has no electoral votes. More on that later.)
Dick Polman, a Philadelphia writer, probably said it for me recently.
There’s an old saying, attributed to nobody in particular, that Democrats never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Although Polman was specifically writing about the internal feud over Nancy Pelosi’s future as the Democratic Party leader in the House, his turn of phrase perfectly framed the “huh?” state of mind for many who were waiting for a more comprehensive statement that identified compelling national priorities and Democratic policy to address them. Yes, we know that such policy statements need to be concise so that a package can be sold. But what you don’t choose to state as a policy goal can also tell a lot about a party’s core values, and therein lies a story about what the Dems have yet to learn about never missing an opportunity to miss another opportunity.
It is true that politics has been defined as” the art of the possible,” and that another Democratic leader, Lyndon Johnson, was thought to have been the master practitioner of politics as art. But a careful look at the new plan released by the Democratic leadership also reveals that the party has missed, yet again, an opportunity for much-needed reform, as the 2016 presidential election so painfully reminds us of every day.
Here is a typical summary of what the House Democrats have in mind in their reform legislative agenda:
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi … told Politico before the election that voting rights would be a top priority for her party in 2019, along with campaign finance reform, lowering drug prices, protecting Dreamers, and strengthening background checks for gun owners.
Campaign reforms will likely be looped into the same bill as voting rights reform, as Roll Call reports. On that front, Democrats are reportedly focused on expanding anti-bribery law and requiring presidential candidates to publicly release their tax returns (a clear dig at President Donald Trump).
Rep. Ted Deutch, a South Florida Democrat, echoed the Democratic reform agenda and provided this succinct summary of his party’s plan as it retakes the House and pledges progressive measures to ensure government oversight:
Yes, it’s nice to read that Democrats are now on record as favoring campaign finance reform, expanded background checks for gun owners, and voting rights protection in the coming session. And? And … is there something else?
A classic song and lyric come to mind when reading the list of promised Democratic reforms:
Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is
Yep, that “huh?” state of dumbfoundedness hit me when I read the talking point about protecting voting rights when the ultimate example of voting wrongs can’t even garner a fleeting mention in the Democrats’ reform agenda.
We are talking, of course, about majority rule, an ultimate voting right and expected outcome, and the need to reform that anachronistic, undemocratic, and slave-era relic, the Electoral College. With the current level of incompetence, corruption and chaos in the Trump administration there for all to see, why is there not a word about voting rights and democratic (small d) electoral reform through the elimination of the Electoral College?
What is wrong with the leadership of a national political party, whose standard bearer won the popular vote in 2016 by 3,000,000 votes but wound up losing the election, in not including an absolute voting right – majority rule – in its new reform agenda? Other than a Resolution introduced by Rep. John Conyers in 2017, there has largely been inaction by the party on dealing with the fatal constitutional flaw called the Electoral College.
Has the Democratic leadership already forgotten 2000, when Vice President Al Gore also won the national popular vote but lost in the Electoral College? While we’re at it, in addition to 2016 and 2000, the candidates who won the popular vote in 1888, 1876, and 1824 wound up as losers in the Electoral College.
These Forlorn Five, who were all winners before they were losers, have something else in common. They were all Democrats. That fact should be important to party leaders today, as it is to those who say huh? Say that again? Five winners, all Democrats, lost the presidential election in the end. Huh?
Nearly three years ago, Plunderbund readers were offered a five-part series on constitutional reform entitled In Order to Form a More Perfect Union. Part Four of the series examined a number of needed constitutional amendments, including Voting as a Fundamental Right and the Popular Election of President and Vice President. The fact that two Democratic presidential candidates in our most recent history won the popular vote but failed to become president because of a flawed constitutional system created in part to protect slaveholding states in the eighteenth century should have created a conversation for reform.
That conversation hasn’t happened, and Democrats have themselves to blame. Democratic Members of Congress should have been seen on C-SPAN and on other networks speaking incessantly about the need to establish a Second Bill of [Voting] Rights which would include the popular election of the president and vice president, along with other measures found in Part Five of the earlier series on constitutional reform. The conversation that Democrats need to champion would, in the end, affirm the principle of one person, one vote first established in the 1962 landmark case Baker v Carr. And if you agree with that simple construct, you also must agree that the 12th Amendment and Electoral College mechanism must be repealed from the Constitution.
Compare the behavior of Democrats, considering their silence about our deeply flawed electoral system and its absence from any core beliefs statements from the party, from the totally different approach of the GOP.
When Republicans win, their behavior is predictable, regardless of the decade. Their platform is never altered, never-ending. For them, it’s all about deregulation, lower taxes for the top income brackets, and cuts to social programs. The private sector is always to be favored over the public sector. You can count on that agenda being articulated, from Reagan through Trump and predictably beyond. Among the many deficiencies of Democrats in creating clear messages for voters is that the party has never had a Frank Luntz, someone who could teach the party faithful about the importance of message discipline.
Democrats should learn a lesson from the constant level of tenacity and message discipline conveyed by the Republicans. When you are a party whose candidates win the popular vote but lose the White House FIVE times, you’d think that the House Democratic plan would have something to say about fixing an undemocratic method of selecting presidents which is unique among the nations of the world. When commentators have to explain to the world that we have two kinds of votes, popular and electoral, but in the end only the electoral counts, you can expect folks from other nations to have a similar huh? moment.
Once again, Democrats never miss an opportunity. It is time for the party to state that democracy and majority rule mean that one person means one vote. As W. C. Fields once put it, “There comes a time … when he must take the bull by the tail and face the situation.”
The Electoral College is, fittingly, the bull that must be taken by the tail. It is time for the Democratic Party to state unequivocally that if our Republic is to endure, we must embrace a democratic solution for our self-governance. The party leadership, if it thinks strategically, can identify the need for this country to choose its leader by popular vote, acquire the discipline to convey that message during the next few years, and force the Republicans to defend a system instituted in the slaveholding era.
There are some observers who believe that we might be running out of time. Our Republic and its political parties must agree that the time has come for a true Age of Reform, an initiative that includes a Second Bill of [Voter] Rights based on one person, one vote as the only method to elect our nation’s leaders.
That’s all there is. It should be that simple. One can only hope that the Democrats will finally not miss this opportunity.
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