Beto’s Term-Limits Plan Is Just What Democrats Need

The specific initiative is a bad idea, but it’s the sort of systemic reform voters are craving.

Stephen Lam / Reuters

Anyone who remembers the 1994 Republican “Contract With America” might have found it jarring to read Beto O’Rourke’s voting-rights plan, released this week.

Along with a range of other policies, from automatic voter registration to campaign-finance reform, the Democratic presidential candidate and former congressman calls for term limits for members of the House, Senate, and Supreme Court.

While term limits for the justices have become a popular cause in both parties, term limits for Congress are an idea that left popular circulation around the time Newt Gingrich stepped down as speaker of the House. When the GOP reclaimed the House in a stunning victory in 1994, the new majority began implementing reforms. One of those was term limits—in fact, Republicans wanted the same 12-year limits (six terms for the House, two for the Senate) that O’Rourke suggests. But the move would have required a constitutional amendment, and it fell short. Many of its former proponents went on to break their own voluntary term limits. The idea has seldom been heard since.

Probably for good reason, as the plan raised a host of objections. O’Rourke writes, “If we want to truly have faith in those we serve, if we want our government to reflect the diversity and strength and creativity of our communities, and if we want to inspire a new generation of voters, then let’s help clear the way for new leaders to step up and bring their unique experiences, expertise, and energy to bear on the problems and opportunities we’re facing.”

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.

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.

Contrasting it with the early-1900s reform push, my colleague Yoni Appelbaum summed up the problem with this approach in 2011:

The current progressive movement has, by contrast, tended to promise better policies and improved implementation, while rallying to the defense of government from its critics. It insists that government should do better, but not that we need a better government. Whatever its intellectual merits, this approach has a fatal political flaw: most Americans number themselves among government’s critics. They don’t think government works terribly well, and they are disinclined to support politicians who do.

Clinton and Obama would argue that they were achieving what was possible given current politics. Perhaps they underestimated their ability to change politics, or perhaps the politics have indeed changed, but today’s Democrats have forsaken that vision in favor of embracing systemic changes.

Many of them are proposing things that would require constitutional amendments, all the more notable since there hasn’t been a substantive amendment since 1971. To name just a few: O’Rourke wants term limits. As I wrote earlier this week, radical reforms to the Supreme Court, including court packing, have become central to party thinking, even for cautious candidates such as O’Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Obama achieved universal insurance coverage through the private-insurance system; several Democrats want to bulldoze it entirely with Medicare for All schemes. Senator Elizabeth Warren has been perhaps the most aggressive of the bunch, pushing everything from abolishing the filibuster to busting trusts to enshrining a right to vote.

These stances are notable because, with the exception of Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders, few of these politicians were suggesting major overhauls of the American political and economic system even a few years ago. But the shifts among presidential contenders reflect a growing taste for big schemes among voters. Four out of five Democrats want the Electoral College abolished, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. (On Wednesday, legislators in Oregon voted to make it the 15th blue state to join a compact that would effectively do an end run around the Electoral College.)

Meanwhile, the Republican Party’s idea pantry seems increasingly bare. While Donald Trump’s unorthodox approach overshadowed this, it’s notable that the most memorable idea from Bobby Jindal, acclaimed as one of the party’s brightest thinkers in recent years, was that the GOP should “stop being the stupid party.” An unimpeachable idea, one might think—or one might have thought before 2016—but not exactly inspirational. The lack of new ideas was on display when, with unified control of the White House and Congress in 2017 and 2018, the only major initiative Republicans managed to pass was a set of tax cuts. Moreover, that turned out to be a failure, both as a matter of policy and politics. Cutting taxes was revolutionary when Reagan did it, but 30-odd years later, it’s the status quo.

Whether the embrace of radical systemic changes can power Democrats to the White House in 2020 remains to be seen. Sometimes the effects of these shifts are slow to bear fruit: The seeds of Reagan’s victory in 1980 were sown in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 rout. But if Democrats do commit to systemic reforms, they could reshape the balance of American politics in ways that will far exceed the impact of any proposed term limits.