The Plan, Part 2: Referendum Representatives

Fixing this corruption isn't the most important problem that we face. It's just the first problem. And we need a strategy that has at least some hope of fixing it first, if we're to have a prayer of addressing the long list of critical problems that we as a nation must solve.
08/24/2015 04:44 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2016

Two weeks ago, I launched a campaign to explore a run for the Democratic nomination for President. My motivation was the recognition both that our government had lost the capacity to govern -- in the words of Elizabeth Warren, that "the system is rigged" -- and that none of the candidates in the Democratic primary had offered any plan that had even a hope of a mandate strong enough to fix that corrupted system.

My plan is a "referendum presidency." I promised a campaign that would focus the nation on the underlying cause of this corruption. And I promised that if elected, I would serve only as long as necessary to pass fundamental reform attacking that basic corruption.

Not just for some ideological or moral reason. But instead because fixing that corruption is the first step to making it possible for our government to address any of the problems that we as a nation face.

We won't pass climate change legislation until we address this corruption first.

We won't enact sensible limits on guns until we address this corruption first.

We won't be able to "take on Wall Street" -- among the biggest funders of congressional campaigns -- until we fix this corruption first.

We won't address student debt sensibly, until we address this corruption first.

Fixing this corruption isn't the most important problem that we face. It's just the first problem. And we need a strategy that has at least some hope of fixing it first, if we're to have a prayer of addressing the long list of critical problems that we as a nation must solve.

A referendum is that prayer. Unlike an ordinary president, who comes to office with a mandate divided among 8 or 10 major issues, the referendum president comes with just one. Through his or her election, the people will have spoken as clearly as a people might speak. And the moral -- and political -- force of that statement would be stronger than anything possible with any ordinary president.

Yet some are skeptical that would be enough. Some worry that a referendum president might be stranded in office, facing a Congress unwilling to act, and a mandate limited to a single, if fundamental issue. How long should the referendum president wait around? What if Congress never passes the promised reform?

The answer to this fair question was hinted at in my original announcement, but it deserves emphasis now. A referendum president would have an unprecedented mandate. But to guarantee this strategy would work takes not just a committed president. It also takes a committed Congress. And the way to earn that commitment is to complement a "referendum president" with "referendum representatives," elected to Congress at the same time, with the same purpose: to pass fundamental reform to make democracy possible.

We would do this by a campaign to recommit our democracy to an ideal central at the founding, but forgotten over the past 20 years: the equality of citizens in a representative democracy. Because here is the assumption behind this fight. Outside of the beltway, far from the political hacks, this equality is not a partisan issue. Good and decent people can disagree about wealth equality. Those fighting speech equality include the left (the ACLU) and right (Citizens United) both.

But the argument against citizen equality is rarely even uttered. When Tom Perkins, co-founder of the venture capital group, Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, speculated that people should receive as many votes as taxes paid, the idea was ridiculed across the political spectrum. Equality of citizens is as American as apple pie. And anyone standing against it faces a very difficult political task to explain why our representative democracy, promised by James Madison to represent "not the rich more than the poor," should give more political power to some, and deny equal rights to any.

This fact is the fulcrum with which this corrupted democracy could be moved. Because as the candidate for a referendum president makes it clear how fixing this corrupted equality would fix this corrupted democracy, he could give life to a similar movement in the campaigns for Congress, and state legislatures as well. This election could be a rally for an idea as old as the Republic, but still not practiced by our democracy: that in a representative democracy, citizens must be represented equally.

So beginning in the primaries, and extending through the general election, we would encourage candidates to run for Congress -- ideally leaders in local communities, not necessarily politicians -- committed to support this single principle. And as those candidates emerged, they would put pressure on the incumbents in both parties to declare whether they were for or against the referendum. If the candidates in a district pledged to co-sponsor the Citizen Equality Act, then no candidate in that district would be needed. But if the question were contested, then a referendum representative -- running in either the Republican or Democratic primary, or, even better, as an independent -- would give voters a chance in that district to elect a representative who would support the Citizen Equality Act of 2017. That "referendum representative" may or may not choose to serve a complete term (the mechanism for replacing a member of the House is cumbersome). But whether she does or not, her first vote will be the reason she has been sent to Congress.

It would take less than fifty referendum representatives (with at least 4 in the Senate) to flip the control of Congress on this one issue -- not even counting the extraordinary mandate of the referendum president. Whether through a pledge, or an election, those referendum representatives could assure that the very first act of Congress would be to pass the most important civil rights legislation in 50 years -- the Citizen Equality Act.

As a candidate for President, I must convince America that they could trust me to serve as president for as long as necessary. The decisions of the office would be mine. The public would need to believe I would make those decisions with good judgment and well. And if I run, then every question touching every aspect of this most sacred trust would be fair. For regardless of what I commit to do, there would be a time when I would serve independent of that commitment.

But the plan of this campaign is that the period during which I would serve be as short as possible. Not because serving as president wouldn't be the greatest civil honor in our culture, but because remaining committed to this one principle is the only way this election could be about that principle.

And that it must be, if we're to get a democracy back. We as a people must commit again to this fundamental equality. And once we do, then we can turn our government back to those who promise to live up to that principle.

First a principle, and then a president. That's what we did more than 225 years ago, when we enacted a new constitution and then elected a new government. That's what we could do today, with a simple commitment to restore the core ideal of that constitution. If we achieve this core equality, we make democracy possible again. And if we do that, we would make hope believable. Again.