In 1992, Bill Clinton won the White House focused on a message so elegantly simple the slogan became campaign legend: It’s the economy, stupid.
In this presidential race, it’s a lot of things.
Abolishing the electoral college. Ending the Senate filibuster. Refashioning the Supreme Court. Paying reparations for slavery.
A whole raft of issues that were little noted, if not wholly overlooked, in previous presidential campaigns have assumed a significant role in this early phase of the Democratic nominating contest, reflecting the party’s leftward shift, the power of social media and, perhaps above all, a field of contenders the size of a small platoon.
“The pressure on all the candidates to figure out how to differentiate themselves from the other candidates is intense,” said Anna Greenberg, a pollster working for former Colorado governor and presidential hopeful John Hickenlooper, one of more than 20 Democrats running or deciding whether to do so.
Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., launched his upstart campaign with a push to eliminate the electoral college and was one of the first to propose expanding the Supreme Court from nine to 15 justices. He suggests five members appointed by a Democratic president, five by a Republican president and the remainder coming from the appellate bench, subject to unanimous consent from the 10 other justices.
Other Democratic hopefuls, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, have said they are open to both ideas.
“Every vote matters, and the way we can make that happen is … get rid of the electoral college,” Warren said, amplifying the issue by pitching it during a recent CNN town hall.
Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker have discussed the issue of reparations, which has largely been consigned to academic and theoretical debate, in the context of their broader proposals to help the poor. Several rival candidates, including Buttigieg, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, have said they too support ways of compensating victims of systemic racism.
“It doesn’t have to be a direct pay for each person, but what we can do is invest in those communities, acknowledge what’s happened,” Klobuchar said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
To a great extent, the Democratic candidates are moving in the direction of left-leaning voters and activists, who have the power on social media to organize around issues and elevate concerns, rather than what has typically been the other way around.
Healthcare, education and the economy are still matters of great interest and routinely come up wherever White House contestants appear. But underlying those issues is a broader frustration — particularly among those on the left — with the political system and its institutions, which, in their view, have thwarted the political will of most Americans.
The Democratic nominee has won the popular vote in all but one of the last seven presidential elections, yet twice in the last two decades it was a Republican — George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 — who claimed the White House by receiving the most electoral college votes.
In the Senate, Republicans refused to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, waiting out the 2016 election in hopes of filling a vacant seat, and have wielded the filibuster in such a way it now requires a super-majority to pass any significant legislation.
The Supreme Court, meantime, has moved decidedly rightward under President Trump, who benefited from the Senate’s delaying tactics and filled two vacancies.
All of that fuels Democratic demands for drastic change in the way the country picks its presidents, creates its laws and operates the highest court in the land, addressing what Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, called “the existential anxiety of our time.”
“There’s immense frustration among primary voters at the way popular will is being subverted,” she said.
There are tactical considerations as well.
The black vote is key to winning the Democratic nomination — African Americans helped lift Barack Obama to the White House and push Hillary Clinton past Bernie Sanders — and discussing slave reparations is a way to signal empathy and concern, said pollster Cornell Belcher.
The issue may not be top of the mind for “the 40-year-old mom who’s got two kids she’s trying to keep out of trouble and feed and is busting her tail to make a living,” said Belcher, who conducts extensive research among black voters.
“Having said that,” he continued, “is it a way for some candidates to have a different and unique conversation with African Americans? I think it is.… Right now, if you’re a white candidate in the middle of the pack … a moonshot issue like reparations is not a bad way to go.”
Some Democrats, though, worry the candidates are straying too far from voters’ core concerns.
“Nobody was elected to the House just now running on reparations,” said Paul Begala, a top strategist in Bill Clinton’s pocketbook-focused 1992 campaign. Without minimizing slavery’s harsh legacy or the import of other freshly surfaced issues, Begala suggested, “how Democrats win is running on a broad middle-class agenda, the way they did in the midterms.”
Trump has gladly chimed in with his perspective. He seized upon the wide-ranging Democratic debate — including a passing suggestion from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) on expanding the electorate — to portray his prospective 2020 rivals as not just wacky but desperate.
“The Democrats are getting very ‘strange,’ ” he tweeted. “They now want to change the voting age to 16, abolish the Electoral College, and increase significantly the number of Supreme Court justices. Actually, you’ve got to win at the Ballot Box!”
(His defense of the electoral college marked a turnabout for Trump, who tweeted the day after Obama’s 2012 reelection, “The electoral college is a disaster for democracy.”)
Donna Brazile, a former head of the Democratic National Committee and a longtime party strategist, was among those who welcomed the campaign’s broader conversation, suggesting the debate over, for instance, remaking the Supreme Court doesn’t preclude discussion of other subjects.
“It’s like going into a restaurant and knowing there will always be a choice of chicken, beef and fish,” she said, likening those entrees to election staples like education, healthcare and the economy. “Now you’ve got vegetarian options and you’ve got gluten-free options.