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It was a made-for-social-media moment for Pete Buttigieg.
In Philadelphia last month on his book tour, Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a Democratic candidate for president, fielded an unlikely question from the audience: “Would you support a packing of the courts to expand the Supreme Court by four members?”
The inquiry elicited titters from the politics-hungry crowd that appeared surprised by the question. But not from Mr. Buttigieg.
“I don’t think we should be laughing at it,” he said. “In some ways it’s no more a shattering of norms than what’s already been done to get the judiciary to where it is today. ”
His response drew immediate praise from liberal news outlets; ThinkProgress declared him the only Democratic candidate that seemed “serious about governing.” But if Mr. Buttigieg’s remarks were off-the-cuff, the question was not: It had been posed by a person involved with Pack the Courts, a liberal activist group that favors adding judges in order to flip the ideological tilt of the high court — known as court-packing.
The success of the strategy — pushing an issue that had mostly thrived on the fringe into the 2020 conversation — illustrates how activists are leveraging the early stages of the Democratic primary, creating pseudo-litmus tests for candidates eager to respond to the energy that is driving more extreme policy proposals.
For grass-roots organizers, the wide-open Democratic field — already veering to the left on taxes, health care, super PAC donations and other issues — provides multiple openings to elevate their agendas. In recent weeks they have helped spur similar exchanges on fraught topics like reparations and ending the Senate filibuster. They have also helped broaden the conversation on climate change to include an expansive proposal called the Green New Deal.
Candidates, including those in the top tier, are increasingly being urged to address these topics in interviews, at events and during media appearances. Senator Bernie Sanders, for instance, has been asked repeatedly about reparations, including recently on ABC’s “The View.” Senator Elizabeth Warren answered a question about ending the filibuster at an event last week in New York. And on Sunday, Mr. Buttigieg was asked again about packing the courts — during a town hall-style forum on CNN.
Representative Pramila Jayapal, the Washington State Democrat and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said candidates who do not project boldness on such issues “are just not going to win.” She said the country was in a unique moment and that issues like court-packing give candidates opportunities to show they understand this.
“Even if you don’t call it a litmus test, this is what defines us: a willingness and a courage to make bold changes — not to just follow when it’s all said and done,” she said.
The impact on the race has already been palpable. Candidates who might have dodged questions on hot-button policies in the past are now finding themselves discussing once-audacious ideas in public forums, sometimes awkwardly so if they are caught off guard.
Lesser known candidates are also using the emerging issues as an opportunity to differentiate themselves, as Mr. Buttigieg did with his response on court packing.
“My purpose is to get people thinking about what an ambitious agenda actually looks like,’’ Mr. Buttigieg said in a telephone interview this week, “and to remind everybody that structural reform is an option — whether it’s this, or the Electoral College, or any of the other stuff.’’
The former housing secretary Julián Castro called for a federal study of reparations for black Americans, even as several top-tier candidates waffled on their support, and during an interview on CNN over the weekend Mr. Castro called out Mr. Sanders by name for declining to support reparation payments. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington has made the elimination of the Senate filibuster a major theme of his candidacy.
“While the world burns, the Senate will sit in total inaction because of an antiquated vestige of a bygone era,” Mr. Inslee said in an interview, referring to the filibuster. “We’re in an internet age and this is something from the steam engine.”
Most of the policies are largely rhetorical and probably politically unfeasible with Republicans controlling the Senate and the White House; court packing, for example, would amount to an extraordinary bucking of constitutional and political norms.
There is also scant evidence that many of these issues are yet galvanizing a Democratic electorate more focused on nominating a candidate who can beat President Trump.
“I would be knocked over with a feather if voters picked the Democratic nominee for president on the basis of getting rid of the filibuster,” said Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic consultant. “That kind of process argument very seldom proves decisive in primaries.”
The tactics activist groups are employing are similar to those used during the midterm elections to popularize issues like abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which gained momentum during the fight over immigration policies last summer.
Sunrise Movement, the climate advocacy group that was founded in April 2017, has already had great success establishing its signature legislative proposal — the so-called Green New Deal, a sprawling economic blueprint to fight climate change, as well as societal problems like income and racial inequality — as a must-answer question for every presidential candidate. The youth-led organization has used high-profile endorsements and polarizing protest tactics to pressure Democrats and Republicans alike; it is already eyeing ways to push 2020 candidates to go even further on climate activism.
“We’re going to ensure that no one gets out of these primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire without hearing about the Green New Deal over and over and over again,” said Varshini Prakash, the executive director of Sunrise Movement. “This is not going away,”
Ms. Prakash, who is 25, said the lack of a 2020 front-runner has allowed grass-roots groups to play the cohort of candidates against one another on certain issues. She expects Sunrise Movement to raise the standards for candidates from simply endorsing the Green New Deal to an even greater commitment: prioritizing the proposal in the first 100 days of any Democratic administration.
“Movements have changed everything,” she said, adding that Sunrise Movement plans to bring thousands of activists to the first Democratic presidential debate. “We are changing what it means for a politician to be a politician.”
Other groups have also tried to impose their legislative wish-lists on the presidential field. Fair Fight Action, the voting rights movement born out of last year’s contentious governor’s race in Georgia, has asked candidates to make election rights and voter suppression a more central theme of their pitch. Common Defense, a collection of antiwar veterans, is circling a pledge among Democratic candidates to end what they call the “forever war” waged by the United States since 2001, which has already been signed by Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders.
Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, who helps lead Women Donors Network, a collective that funds grass-roots organizations nationally, said that voters want politicians whose policies meet the present crisis. And she said candidates that resist will be penalized at the ballot box.
“The path to electability is through boldness right now,” she said. “It’s not just a litmus test for conversation; it’s actually going to show up in who is able to pass through these primary battles.”
Like Mr. Buttigieg in Philadelphia, candidates are often addressing these issues in response to questions, during town-hall style forums and interviews, rather than pushing the policies themselves.
“It’s all on the table, baby,” Ms. Warren said last Friday when asked about the filibuster at a rally in New York.
The House progressive caucus may take the emergence of new issues even further. It recently acknowledged that it was considering new rules that would require its nearly 100 members to vote together on key issues for the group — a move aimed at increasing its power. Representative Mark Pocan, who serves as co-chairman with Ms. Jayapal, said the House progressives also hope to host presidential candidates during their annual summit this fall.
“Actions speak stronger than words, and there are people running on progressive issues who are not who you think of as progressives, because they realize that’s what people want,” Mr. Pocan said.
“But the devil’s in the details,” he said, “and it’s our job to now put meat on the bones of these issues.”