For many years, the purveyors of DC conventional wisdom were certain that no one really cared about campaign finance or lobbying reform- I heard it a thousand times. Yet when the Democrats took power in the House at the beginning of this year, Nancy Pelosi- who knows how to read polls pretty damn well- chose to make HR1, legislation fundamentally reforming the campaign finance system, the first major new bill to be introduced and then passed by the Democrats. When Donald Trump surprised everyone in both the Republican and Democratic parties by winning first the nomination and then the general election in 2016 despite his boorish personality and all-around awfulness, he did it by convincing voters he would break the establishment’s china and “Drain the Swamp”. If Democrats are going to win the next election, they will need to convince voters that they will tame the corruption that has made DC dysfunctional.
Which brings us to the wine cave war that broke out at last night’s debate. The moment was uncomfortable- I was squirming in my seat watching it, and I like hard ball politics. But the reason the clash reverberated so much was that this core debate about corruption is so foundational in American politics. Mayor Pete’s argument that he will take support from anyone in the quest to beat Trump, and that he could never be bought by a contribution, misses the point. I have not a single doubt about the Mayor’s integrity, don’t question that he could say no to a donor on a given issue. The problem in our politics is the steady drip, drip, drip of money in our system, and how it influences everything, from the stands politicians take on issues to the priorities they choose to the battles they pick to the message and tactics they have in their campaign.
Warren’s decision to not do big dollar fundraising in her campaign, one of the gutsiest decisions I have seen in my 35 years of presidential politics, profoundly transformed her campaign. It has meant she doesn’t spend all that time partying with and talking to wealthy donors; she spends much more time on the campaign trail talking to regular folks. Those conversations with voters have informed and driven her entire campaign. And the thing is, she and Bernie have raised about the same amount as Pete, so the whole arm tied behind her back thing really doesn’t fly: Elizabeth and Bernie have raised all that money precisely because grassroots voters are inspired by them not sucking up to rich donors.
Beyond campaign tactics, the debate over how to raise money goes to the heart of the matter in American politics. In my early days in the Clinton White House, I was always struck by how much President Clinton was thinking about the regular folks he knew back in Arkansas. We’d be in a policy meeting discussing an issue, and he would make comments like, “You know, Jimmy down the street from the Governor’s mansion in Little Rock runs a little retail shop. I’m worried this tax would hit him especially hard”, or “I know that Rosie on Pulaski Street is juggling taking care of her kids and her neighbor’s kids, is there a way this spending program could be restructured to give her a better chance to use it?" Our policy decisions were very much informed by his thinking about these folks he knew and loved. But as time went on, Clinton talked a lot less in the policy meetings I was in about people like Rosie and Jimmy. Instead he would mention that a donor he was talking to at last night’s fundraiser was having trouble with a new regulation that was just issued. And being in that bubble, talking mostly to donors rather than regular people, had a huge influence on some of the legislation the administration pushed and signed, like the media and financial industry deregulation bills passed later in Clinton’s term.
And it’s not just the Clinton White House. I have been in many meetings over the years in my time in DC where Democrats didn’t want to take an issue to the floor because of the power of the Wall Street lobby, or the power of the health care industry. I’ve been in too many campaign meetings where the message and policy discussions included conversation about whether we could raise money from “X” set of players if the candidate talked too much about a certain issue, or if the candidate sounded too populist. I have been in meetings with think tanks where they made a decision to not comment on an issue because some of the big donors didn’t want them to do so. The influence of big money is on every corner in DC.
Unlike with Donald Trump, the kind of corruption that permeates the culture of Washington is not a quid pro quo kind of corruption, selling this for that. But it’s everywhere, it’s so deep in the culture here, polluting so much of what is possible.
And voters know it. The reason that a nasty right winger like Trump and progressive icons like Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders all talk about corruption so much is that they understand how angry voters are with business as usual in Washington, DC. Voters want to see the system shaken up; they want to see the powers that be thrown out of the Capitol in the same way Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple.
The problem with Pete’s defense, last night and throughout the campaign, is that warm words about welcoming everybody and bringing everyone together don’t address the fundamental issue of corruption plaguing Washington. If we don’t go to the heart of the matter and clean up the drip drip, drip of DC business as usual, we probably won’t win this election- and even if we do, we won’t make the changes in government which working people in this country are demanding.
If all people remember about this debate is the drama of the wine cave battle, I’m good with that, because my candidate is Warren, and I think she wins the argument. Voters care deeply about the pervasive influence of money in our political system, and they will choose to reform it.