For a party that prides itself on its appeal to the young, the Democrats sure have a lot of old ideas. Of course, no conservative would automatically gainsay an old idea, but the Democrats are supposed to be, you know, progressive.
So let’s look at some of their oldies.
First up: an idea straight out of 1937. In that year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fresh from a landslide re-election (he carried 46 of 48 states), which gifted him more-super-than-supermajorities in Congress, also resolved to build a supermajority on the Supreme Court. In previous years, the court, dominated by conservatives, had derailed many of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. And so the re-elected 32nd president, feeling hubristic, sent to Congress a plan to expand the body from nine to 15 justices—with the idea being, of course, that he could appoint the new six.
Republican opponents immediately dubbed the initiative “court-packing,” and the label stuck. Soon, conservative and moderate Democrats peeled away. And so, despite Roosevelt’s strenuous efforts—including an attempted purge of recalcitrant Dems—the court-packing plan died. Even worse from the White House’s point of view, the public, alarmed by visions of “Caesarism,” punished FDR’s party in the 1938 midterm elections, handing the GOP a massive victory. Indeed, the result was the formation of a bipartisan “conservative coalition” that dominated Capitol Hill for the next quarter century. In other words, the court-packing plan was the most consequential legislative and political failure of the Roosevelt administration.
So perhaps it’s a bit strange that now, eight decades later, “court-packing” is making a comeback in Democratic circles. A March 18 headline in Politico lays it out: “2020 Dems warm to expanding Supreme Court.” As the article details, presidential hopefuls Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren are all at least somewhat supportive of court-packing.