Cokie and Steven Roberts: A really bad idea

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 6, 2019

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Democrats are really frustrated, and for good reason. After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, Republicans successfully blocked attempts by President Obama to fill his seat before the election. Once Donald Trump won, Republicans changed Senate rules to eliminate filibusters on Supreme Court nominees and narrowly pushed through Neil Gorsuch to take Scalia’s place.

Since then, Trump has won approval for a second new justice, Brett Kavanaugh, solidifying a younger and more conservative majority on the high court. He’s also stocked the lower federal bench with scores of youthful appointees who could tilt the judiciary rightward for the next generation.

This record has provoked many Democrats, especially those running for president, into endorsing two unhinged and unhealthy proposals. One would eliminate the Electoral College and choose the president by national ballot, preventing another minority president like Trump (or George W. Bush, for that matter). The other would add new justices to the Supreme Court and break the conservative chokehold on judicial deliberations — assuming Democrats figure out how to win future presidential elections.

Both parties also resent the Senate filibuster, which thwarts the majority’s ability to pass legislation. Trump supports total elimination of the rule. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, a contender for the Democratic nomination, shares Trump’s goal, telling NPR: “The filibuster will essentially doom us to a situation where we’ll never be able to fight climate change.”

The animating animus behind these proposals was expressed by Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who also might run for president: “To change the country, we need to fundamentally change how government works.”

Well, no. Frustration does not justify extremism. Fundamentally changing the government would diminish the stability and continuity that has undergirded our democratic system for more than 200 years. It would establish a dangerous precedent that says, after every election, every rule and tradition is up for grabs.

Some precepts should be changed, of course. The 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage next year testifies to that. But caution and modesty are virtues that generally strengthen democracy, not weaken it.

Memory is also a virtue. It’s important for lawmakers who are in the majority — and tempted to wield their power recklessly — to remind themselves that they once served in the minority and probably will again. Winners must remember what losing is like. But no one seems to do that in Washington these days.

After President Obama won a second term in 2012, Trump tweeted, “The Electoral College is a disaster for a democracy.” But after he lost the national tally by 3 million votes four years later and still won the White House, he embraced the Electoral College.

Democrats who were thrilled with a system that produced the first black president are now itching to demolish it.

If anything, attitudes toward judges are even more hypocritical. In a particularly shortsighted move, Democrats in 2013 ended the filibuster against lower federal court judges. Yes, Obama subsequently rammed though many of his selections, but the reversal of fortune was predictable and inevitable. Republicans have exploited the absence of the filibuster to fill a raft of lower court vacancies.

Moreover, they’ve largely ended a tradition that previously enabled senators from the rival party to slow and even stop nominees from their home state.

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana blames himself and other Democrats for opening the door to the GOP’s mischief. “Probably the biggest mistake I ever made was voting on the rule change on judges,” he admitted to Politico.

Lawmakers make mistakes like that all the time. They seize short-term gains and forget about long-term consequences. And in the process, they endanger the rules and procedures, written and unwritten, that protect the pillars of the American system.

Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, yet another potential presidential aspirant, told The Washington Post that the founders fashioned a system that would reconcile disagreements and produce “much more durable and imaginative solutions than any tyrant or king would ever think of.”

“That’s what these mechanisms are for, and we’re in the process of breaking all those mechanisms,” he said. “We should think long and hard about whether or not we want to destroy all that, where we think that what we should do is live in a world where they have their version of one-party rule for a while and then we substitute it with our version of one-party rule. To me that seems like a really bad idea.”

He’s right. Healthy democracies thrive on mutual respect, not mean-spirited revenge.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted at