An awful lot of the time spent in seven Democratic presidential debates, including the one this week in Des Moines, revolved around questions aimed at determining these candidates’ backgrounds and record, values, visions, and capacity to beat Donald Trump. That’s all very important information. But as the voting phase of the nominating process approaches, and the field of candidates inevitably continues to shrink, it’s time for the practical part of the debate discussions to grow a lot larger, as legal expert Jeffrey Toobin suggested earlier this week at the New Yorker:
The Democratic debates so far have featured detailed discussions of the candidates’ competing health-care plans—none of which is likely to become law in any form close to what’s so far been described…. But one thing we know for sure is that, if a Democrat wins the White House this year, he or she will be responsible for appointing federal judges, including a few likely vacancies on the Supreme Court.
Yes, that subject did come up in the October debate, but even then it was more about visionary ideas of how to reshape SCOTUS to protect cherished rights via court-packing or terms limits or some other unlikely-to-be-enacted scheme. More specific, short-term plans are more relevant. Will the candidates, for example, emulate Trump’s politically smart approach of setting up a vetting process for prospective SCOTUS candidates and a list of potential nominees before the 2020 election cycle ends? Bernie Sanders recently said in an interview that he’d “consider” doing that, even before the nominating contest is over. Let’s hear more about that from him and from his rivals. But that’s not the only question, even on judges: how will the candidate deal with such nominations if Republicans continue to control the Senate, which at present is more likely than not? And will she or he devote some real political capital to legal fights in the state and lower courts where reproductive rights, health care protections, treatment of immigrants, and other key issues are being litigated every single day?
As Toobin points out, a coalition of progressive groups focused on such issues (including the Demand Justice Initiative, the Center for Reproductive Rights and NARAL Pro-Choice America) are sponsoring a presidential forum (not a debate, but a series of candidate interviews) on February 8 in New Hampshire. That’s the day after the eighth official candidate debate, and just three days before the New Hampshire primary. It will be a great opportunity to get into real detail on each candidate’s perspective on constitutional rights, SCOTUS, and the judiciary generally. But this questions should be on the agenda wherever candidates gather.
The judiciary isn’t the only practical issue that needs more airing before the primary ends. Given the many structural obstacles to the enactment of progressive policies in Congress, with or without Democratic majorities, candidates need to be pressed on their “theories of change,” their strategies for overcoming entrenched opposition, whether it’s Amy Klobuchar’s focus on executive orders or Elizabeth Warren’s belief that an anti-corruption push can break the power of lobbyists. The health care and climate change arenas are both high-priority areas in which there simply aren not and won’t automatically be working majorities for what has to be done. It’s not enough to say, like Joe Biden does, that Trump’s departure will change everything, or to claim, like Bernie Sanders does, that a “political revolution” will materialize to square every circle. A sustained questioning of the candidates on crucial issues of implementation, definitively nailing them down on items like filibuster reform where several have been slippery, could be worth a lot to voters who seem very hard-headed when it comes to electability but not necessarily in terms of exactly what electable candidates are expected to accomplish.
Yes, some parts of the Democratic primary electorate may feel that beating Trump and getting him and his cronies out of power is enough for one year; actually accomplishing anything is gravy. But that’s a sad and defensive posture to have, and one that voters are not likely to reward, either. Values are essential and vision can be inspiring in a president. But if that’s all a candidate offers, we need to know the next four years could become a huge disappointment and a lost opportunity.