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Winning the White House Won’t Fix Our Democracy

More than a dozen Democrats are chasing the glory of the presidency, but some are missing the bigger picture.


There are 14 prominent Democrats who believe they ought to be next president of the United States. As many as a dozen more may join them. But not Eric Holder. Obama’s first attorney general announced on Monday that he had decided against a bid, saying he would instead focus on leading the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a Democratic-aligned group that aims to curb GOP gerrymandering when the states redraw legislative maps after the 2020 census.

“I will do everything I can to ensure that the next Democratic president is not hobbled by a House of Representatives pulled to the extremes by members from gerrymandered districts,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed announcing his decision. This is familiar ground for Holder. He warned in this magazine last February that the Trump administration’s proposed citizenship question on the census “would have devastating consequences on the right to vote and to participate meaningfully in democracy,” and he often calls for the Electoral College’s abolition.

For the past 20 years, Republicans have exploited structural flaws in American democracy to amass disproportionate political power in Washington. The challenge for Democrats is how to reform that system to achieve their goals. While winning the presidency is an important step in that process, Holder’s decision shows how some of the presidential candidates could better advance a liberal policy agenda by staying out of the 2020 race.

The current crop of Democratic candidates seems to understand this, to varying degrees. Some have said they will support statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, which would give representation in Congress to almost four million Americans and dilute the influence of conservative rural states. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren built her campaign around the theme of anti-corruption and proposed a wide-ranging legislative package to undermine special interests’ grip on Washington. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s central theme is how extreme wealth inequality has warped the American democratic process. Without tackling these structural issues, major policy initiatives like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All don’t stand a chance of becoming law.

But not every Democratic contender seems to be taking a strategic approach to this problem. Beto O’Rourke’s near-upset of Texas Senator Ted Cruz in last year’s midterm elections shocked the state’s political scene and turned the former congressman from El Paso into a national figure. Top Democrats tried to persuade O’Rourke to challenge John Cornyn, Texas’s other incumbent Republican senator, for his seat in 2020. Even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly pressed him to enter the race.

Those pleas apparently fell on deaf ears. O’Rourke announced last week that he won’t challenge Cornyn in 2020, and said he plans to make an announcement soon on whether he’ll run for the White House. It’s entirely possible that he will break through a crowded Democratic field, become the party’s nominee next summer, and topple Trump in next fall’s presidential election. But it’s more probable that he fails to secure the nomination, and he will have given up the Democrats’ best chance to capture a key Senate seat and potentially retake the chamber.

John Hickenlooper, who wrapped up two terms as Colorado’s governor in January, also turned down an opportunity to help Democrats retake the Senate. His state is home to Cory Gardner, who’s widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent Republican senator in 2020. Democratic leaders courted Hickenlooper to challenge Gardner, but he refused. “I’m not cut out to be a senator,” he told Politico last month. “Senators don’t build teams. Senators sit and debate in small groups, which is important, right? But I’m not sure that’s my—I’m a doer. That’s what gives me joy.”

Hickenlooper announced on Monday that he’s running for president, casting himself as a moderate who can “get stuff done.” But he quickly undercut that pitch to voters when an interviewer asked how he would deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism. “When I come into office, I would go to Mitch McConnell, to his office, and I would sit down with him and say, ‘Now what is the issue again?’” he replied. “And we would talk and I would continue to speak back to him. Sounds silly, right? But this works.” The idea that McConnell would be so persuadable runs counter not only to the Kentucky senator’s entire career as a conservative maximalist but the last decade of American political history.

Contrast Hickenlooper with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who ruled out a presidential bid on Tuesday. “I’ve got this limited number of years of life on this planet—how can I have the biggest impact?” Merkley told The Washington Post. “That’s what I’ve been weighing. And I’ve reached the conclusion that the biggest impact I can have is here in the Senate.”

Stacey Abrams embodies this dilemma among Democrats. She knows better than almost anyone about the structural deficits in American democracy, having narrowly lost to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp last year in a race marred by voter-roll purges and a controversial name-check program that may have kept tens of thousands of voters from casting a ballot. “Let’s be clear: voter suppression is real,” she said in her State of the Union response in January. “From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.”

Abrams is now considering whether to challenge Senator David Perdue for his seat in 2020 or mount a presidential bid; she’s expected to announce her decision by the end of the month. She would be a formidable contender for the Democratic nomination, but her odds of winning a Senate seat are far greater. Holder and Merkley get it: Building a better democracy requires more than just control of the White House. Too bad many of the Democrats’ brightest stars can’t see that.