The Party of Reform and Repair

Picking up after Donald Trump’s mess will position Democrats for success. Defending the status quo is a recipe for disaster.

Life comes at you fast.

In four weeks the Trump administration has blown past a whole basketful of governing norms, doing any number of things which are ill-advised and irresponsible but (mostly) legal. Hopefully, Democrats have been making a list, because it should form the foundation of a reform agenda.

In past eras, the progressive response to massive social change has been to embrace the new world and lead reform. It’s time to embrace that heritage and apply it to today. Trump may have tried to run as a reformer — or at least as a fixer — but he’s quickly turned the White House into a hot mess. When Americans realize that fact, they aren’t going to be any less interested in reform; they’re going to want it more.

Your spirit animal.

Progressives must resist the temptation to defend the pre-Trump status quo and instead lean heavily on a proud tradition of reform. If voters who want things fixed and changed expect Trump to succeed, they will be disappointed. But that does not mean those voters will embrace the defenders of the old order; it’s not like things were great for everyone before Trump. In fact, being guardians of the old order is a sure-fire way to give President Trump a second term.

We should get nervous when we occasionally hear President Trump realize this and talk about “fixing the broken ways of the past.” It makes him sound sane, as if he’s just trying new things to see what sticks. If he can own the territory of a pragmatic experimenter — more Chris Christie than Yosemite Sam — it’s very dangerous for Democrats. Right now he’s a walking collector of grievances. With a bit of luck he’ll be seen as an incompetent bumbler. But positioned as a reformer, he would have a veneer of respectability that’s even more dangerous to American democratic norms.

We should get nervous when we occasionally hear President Trump realize this and talk about “fixing the broken ways of the past.”

A progressive reform agenda should be bold, broad, and reflect modern policy thinking. And no one should be worried about whether or not it is entirely practical — the point is not making everything happen in four or eight years, but rather demonstrating we understand the problem and can embrace big ideas. Go on the offense and push change as ambitious as our values are strong.

The first part of the progressive reform agenda, however, is fairly obvious: Immediate, necessary reforms to steady the ship and contain what damage Trump may cause before we stop him at the ballot box — foremost in our effort must be to secure national security and democratic integrity:

  • No more Bannons on the NSC: Review the structure and makeup of the National Security Council to prevent the appointment of overtly political staff. The NSC is a statutory creation and statues could define or limit the makeup of the Principals Committee or define a cabinet official consultation process, for example. Racist political extremists like Steve Bannon have no business making military and national security decisions.
  • Show us your money: Expand the required candidate legal and financial disclosures. No one should be able to run for President or Congress in 2020 without full disclosure of their taxes and greater detailed on income and investments than current disclosure laws require. When you sign that candidacy form, the IRS releases your tax returns automatically.
  • Prevent Presidential pay-offs: Require legal and financial separation from businesses and other conflicted entities by those in decision-making and advisory positions, both within the White House and Department Secretary offices. The next president and his cabinet officials simply shouldn’t have the option to not divest from their businesses or put their assets in blind trusts. Candidates could even be required to file plans to divorce themselves from financial entanglements after they file their candidacy, documents which the Office of Government Ethics could review, approve, and enforce. Congress should also establish a clear definition of an emolument, if only to spur clarifying litigation.
  • See you in court. Strengthen the Office of Government Ethics with the power to bring charges, enforce punishments, and appoint special prosecutors. There’s no excuse for political appointees who flagrantly violate the rules and no reason a president should be able to use the White House to enrich a family business. In other countries that’s called “corruption.”
  • Disclosures first, hearings second: Require appointees to submit full disclosures prior to congressional hearings. Effective “advice and consent” requires an informed Senate. Appointees should be required by law to complete (expanded) disclosures before confirmation hearings or votes can be held.
  • One president at a time: Add structure to the transition process to prevent a President-elect from interfering in current policy. Smooth Presidential transitions don’t include incoming advisers running their own foreign policy and undermining a sitting president. The Logan Act is clearly insufficient, if it was ever useful at all. Incoming appointees can surely conduct transitional diplomatic discussions with their counterparts in other countries, but we could require it be done in the presence of (firewalled) career State Department officials, for example. If nothing else, let’s consider an empowered “OPSEC Sherpa” role for the President-elect’s staff — the President Elect shouldn’t be calling international leaders on his unsecured cell phone.
  • Pro-voting reforms. Fun fact: There is currently no constitutional provision that truly guarantees voting rights. We should make election day a three day weekend and a national holiday. Or maybe let everyone vote by mail. This isn’t my area of expertise, but there are clearly necessary reforms to pursue.

Progressives might worry that people have lost faith in government, and will therefore be skeptical of government solutions to national problems. But Donald Trump didn’t run against government, he ran against a government he claimed was incompetent. Remember “I alone can fix it?” Of course, there’s no way President Trump is going to fix much of anything. When the dust of his failure settles, we need to be there with solutions, welcoming the support of people who want their government to do something for them.

The left has always been most successful — in vision and impact — when we tackled problems by starting from first principles, starting from scratch with big ideas. Yet over the years, Democrats have usually proposed arcane and technocratic modifications or expansions to existing programs like Medicare or student loans, rarely asking “if this program were designed from scratch today, how would it work?” Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the epitome of this — 100 different exceptions, exemptions, grants, and public-private partnerships — all without the broad narratives that connect the dots between personal experience, values, and policy. Donald Trump is the perfect excuse for us to start from the beginning, to match 21st century problems with 21st century policy solutions.

Donald Trump was odd choice for people who wanted reform, but odd choices happen. This is after all, the country that elected Al Franken to the Senate. But Donald Trump is the uniquely-destabilizing result of a system out of kilter. Steadying the ship will be essential and progressives should lean on a proud tradition of reform to help bring balance to our politics. We can’t steady the ocean, but we can provide ballast to the ship. Then we will be well-positioned to pick up the pieces after Donald shambles out of the Oval Office in disgrace.