The constitutional crisis no one is talking about — except Hillary Clinton
The former presidential candidate and Secretary of State needs a job. Here’s one.
Pundits, reporters, and analysts professional and armchair alike have had a lot to say about “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton’s post-election deconstruction. The book and accompanying media tour have led many — especially those on the left — to question why Clinton doesn’t just call it a career and retire to the woods.
Putting aside why Bernie Sanders rarely gets the same question (Vermont’s well known for its woods, after all), we should be thankful Clinton is staying involved in public life. Democrats, and the country at large, need a post-2016 Hillary Clinton because she’s the only major American public figure warning of one of the most formidable threats to our democracy: a constitutional convention.
Organizing a convention to rewrite the Constitution — known as an Article V Convention, after its legal basis — is no easy task. It requires 34 state legislatures to approve an effort to call for a convention, and then three-quarters of all 50 states to ratify the final product before it takes effect.
To date, 27 states have approved some sort of request for a convention. All are led by Republicans, reflecting the partisan leanings of the national organizations behind the effort. (Some on the left have pushed far less successfully for a similar gathering with the goal of repealing the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.)
What would a constitutional convention mean? Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, puts it succinctly: “At stake, potentially, are the freedoms we take for granted under the Bill of Rights; the powers of the president, Congress and the courts; and the policies the government can or cannot pursue.” In other words, he writes, “conventioneers could alter absolutely anything about the way the United States is governed.”
That means all of the constitutional protections Americans rely on today would be on the bargaining table — with no guarantee they’ll be at the table to bargain. A free-for-all on the floor of some convention center controlled by well-organized fringe groups with the financial backing of the Koch brothers, among others, at a particularly fragile and acrimonious moment in American politics. What could go wrong?
Yet despite being just seven states short of calling for a convention, this issue doesn’t appear to be on the radar of most Americans. (The extent of voters’ awareness is difficult to discern, given the lack of available polling data.) That’s likely because a constitutional convention is a long-term effort that only slowly coalesces into a major threat — exactly the kind of serious but not yet in-your-face challenge, like climate change, that American politics is particularly ill-suited to confront today.
Progressives — and supporters of our existing constitutional order — have to find a way to come together against a constitutional convention. Yes, winning control of more state legislatures in 2018 would be the most effective and immediate check on this threat, but how do we get voters enthusiastic about showing up for state and local elections?
We need someone with the stature to raise wide public awareness of the dangerous implications of this effort. Someone with the experience and connections necessary to build a coalition in opposition to it. Someone with financial resources and free time. Someone with deep understanding of politics, government, and law, and who can explain their intersection in words human beings understand. And, perhaps most importantly, someone who’s fired up to fight.
Hillary Clinton’s available now, and unlike most public figures — elected or non — she’s already speaking publicly about what a constitutional convention is and why it’s so dangerous. As she warned in a recent interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, “There’s a big move for change coming from the right that I think would be disastrous for our country. They want radical, pull-em-up-by-the-roots change, they want to have a constitutional convention to rewrite our Constitution to make it friendlier to business, to inject religious and ideological elements.”
To some it might sound conspiratorial, but why shouldn’t we trust Clinton on this? Think of some of the major stories in American politics of late. Clinton was right to raise the alarm about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, even when few were taking her campaign’s allegations seriously. She was right to call out Donald Trump’s white supremacist leanings in a speech in August of 2016, almost a year to the day before a group of white supremacists, many adorned in MAGA hats, gathered in Charlottesville, Va., emboldened Trump’s election and continued antagonism toward racial justice. Clinton, from day one, tried to explain that the private email server “scandal” was nothing more than a media pile-on to a shred of a story.
Hillary Clinton warned us about each, and she was right about each. Perhaps we should take her seriously when she warns of the consequences of rewriting the rules of our democracy.
Hillary Clinton is the right person to lead Democratic opposition to a constitutional convention. Rather going quietly back to Chappaqua, we should hope she takes the reins in loud and public opposition to hitting reset on one of the most remarkable founding documents in human history.