Why Political Reform Should Be Priority Number One
The tragic aspect of Barack Obama’s first term in the White House is that a president who was elected on the promise of changing how politics works, and whose main political passion was the crafting of consensus, was instead ground down, defeated, and made ordinary by the democratic process. As Noam Scheiber’s recent book, The Escape Artists, suggests, Obama would have been better off, given the magnitude and urgency of the economic crisis in 2009, had he simply forgotten about hope, change and finding consensus, and instead fought his way cynically through the political process as it is.
But it would be a mistake to think of process-reform as a luxury. The political dysfunction in Washington is now its own crisis—one to be addressed on its own terms. If the economy recovery remains on solid ground—a big if, of course—Obama should reclaim, both on the campaign trail and upon re-election, his original mission and passion: Reform of the political process. Pollster Stanley Greenberg concluded in July 2011 that voters are more open than ever before to thinking about economic inequality and stress as connected to political inequality and a sense that the “the game is rigged” and people “do not think their voices matter.”
Not only did Obama fail to address the political process, it is surely in worse shape now—that is, less democratic, less able to get things done—than when he took office. It’s not just that the process tripped up Obama’s efforts on health care, climate change, and economic recovery—Congressional obstruction has now crossed the line into what James Fallows of The Atlantic calls “nullification,” including blocking the implementation of existing laws. All the barriers of law and custom that had put a modest check on the influence of money on elections and legislation have fallen—most of them not directly because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision but more because of a cultural sense that anything goes, combined with lack of enforcement. Rather than moving to open the electoral process, eleven states have enacted or tightened voter I.D. requirements since Obama took office.
Obama’s greatest government-reform accomplishments to date have only addressed this massive problem on its outermost margins. He has enacted a ban on lobbyists serving in the executive branch (which has arguably done more harm than good, by disqualifying capable public-interest advocates), significantly opening up some government information, such as the database of projects supported by the economic stimulus, and backed a soon-to-be-passed ban on insider-trading by members of Congress, a problem most of us didn’t know existed (and which probably doesn’t).
Pursuing more far-reaching reform won’t be easy, of course, in part because there’s no longer a neutral ground. Every future procedural reform will be cast in terms of partisan advantage or disadvantage. John McCain doesn’t even pretend to favor reform any longer. But the president would have an opportunity in a second term—four years without the pressure of reelection—to lead a long-term educational campaign about what American democracy could look like. With a Democratic Congress, reform of the role of money in politics is not as inconceivable as it might seem—a majority of the Democratic majority supported the Fair Elections Act in 2010, which establishes a cutting-edge public-financing system, and new members of Congress will likely enter from Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut who were elected to state legislatures under similar systems and can be evangelists for their merits—which include reducing the amount of time members have to spend raising money.