But as O’Rourke’s former House colleagues Joe Crowley and Mike Capuano can attest, voters are perfectly willing to turn out incumbents in favor of younger, nonwhite leaders. Term limits are arguably antidemocratic, since they take choice away from voters. They make it harder for Congress to pass the sort of major legislation O’Rourke calls for in the same breath, because they imperil the creation of expertise and coalitions. With legislators turning over frequently, term limits concentrate power among unelected staffers, and among lobbyists and outside policy interests.
Yet the parallel with the 1994 Republican Revolution is telling. O’Rourke, like many of the other Democrats running for president this year, is proposing sweeping systemic reforms to the political system. That’s a shift for the Democratic Party. For decades, the party has tended to pledge to make the existing system work better, while Republicans have promised voters that they’ll radically change the system. Perhaps not coincidentally, that period has coincided with a right-wing ascendancy inside American politics.
It has not always been thus. During the Progressive period of the early 20th century, liberals rallied around a series of major systemic reforms. They pushed to break up trusts. They expanded the vote, and demanded recall elections and popular referenda. They passed the Seventeenth Amendment, mandating the direct election of senators by voters, rather than by state legislatures.
Democrats took up this mantle, from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Republicans could still win presidential elections, but as with Dwight Eisenhower, they were often offering just a scaled-back version of Democratic big-government ideas. The GOP was supine.
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And then it wasn’t. Starting in the 1960s, conservatives retook the initiative with an argument that government was the problem, culminating in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Democrats mostly retained a firm grasp on Congress until 1994, when the GOP won both houses, partly on the back of the “Contract With America.” Democrats adjusted to the new reality by largely accepting it. In a mirror image of Eisenhower, Bill Clinton signaled his acquiescence to the new order, declaring in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over.” He oversaw a huge overhaul of welfare and balanced the federal budget. His most aggressive liberal initiative, health-care reform, died early in his term. Insofar as Clinton had an argument about government, it was the center-right’s.
The next Democratic president, Barack Obama, wasn’t a systemic reformer either. Running for office, Obama promised “change” and an improved government, but his explanation for how that would happen was vague and aspirational; in any case, it did not involve major structural changes, but instead depended on making the existing system work better. Obama’s policy approach was more aggressive than Clinton’s—he managed to finally pass a form of universal health insurance, as well as new regulations on the financial industry—but true to form, he focused on legislating through existing channels, rather than changing those channels.