Will CNN's Democratic Presidential Debate Tackle America's Broken Campaign Finance System? Here's Some Suggestions How

At the second Republican presidential primary debate in California, Jeb Bush was asked whether he’s a puppet of big donors. He said no, obviously. Politicians aren’t allowed to admit their donors influence them, even though most Americans believe they do.

CNN’s Jake Tapper was right to ask about money in politics at the debate. It’s increasingly becoming a major issue on both sides of the campaign, with candidates offering any number of policies to address the problem and criticizing others for their ties to donors and special interests.

When the cameras are on during the first Democratic debate on Tuesday, among the most powerful people in the room will be the moderators: CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, Dana Bash, and Juan Carlos Lopez. They will control what topics come up and whether questions require follow up. Our broken campaign finance system—and what to do about it—must be on that list.

Eighty-four percent of Americans—majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—believe money has too much influence in politics and 85 percent believe we need either fundamental changes to or a complete rebuilding of our campaign-finance law, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. Two-thirds of Americans think the country’s political system is dysfunctional, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. Three-quarters of Americans believe our federal government is corrupt, according to Gallup.

The moderators should know that the current system erects financial barriers that limit opportunities for many female, African-American, Latino, and Asian American candidates. Research by the Women’s Donor Network showed that out of 42,000 elected officials nationwide, 90% are white and 71% are male.

While important, most Americans don’t need polls or studies to prove this point. We know it in our bones. When we look at Washington we see a city where big money calls the shots. We see a political system in which ordinary people with a commitment to serve their communities stand little chance of ever making it to Congress. If Democratic presidential candidates want to show voters they are serious about making a government and economy that works for everyday Americans, at their first debate, they will talk about what they plan to do to fix this.

A few who will take the debate stage already agree on the right solutions.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Gov. Martin O’Malley all agree that to transform our government into one that’s truly of, by, and for the people, we need to create a system that matches small donations with limited public funds to amplify the voices of everyday people. They agree we need to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that paved the way for super PACs and unlimited corporate spending in politics. And they all agree we need more transparency in political spending, achieved through legislative means and executive action.

Former Sens. Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb, the other invited participants, have spoken out about the detrimental influence of big money in politics but haven’t yet issued clear platforms on what to do about it.

So instead of a question about whether the system is corrupt, moderators should ask candidates what they’ll do to fix it.

Here are some suggestions:

• To give regular people a bigger voice in politics, at least three of you have said Congress should create a system that would match small donations with public funds. How would you pressure Congress to pass this legislation?
• How many of you are willing to pledge today that you will only appoint Supreme Court Justices that will overturn Citizens United?
• There has been a big increase in political spending by groups that don’t disclose their donors. Would you use administrative action and regulatory power to add transparency to such spending?
• Throughout his campaigns, President Obama said he’d work to reform the broken campaign finance system. So far, he hasn’t done much other than give speeches. How would your administration be different?
• Poll after poll shows voters are cynical about the political system and distrust elected officials. What will you do to convince the American public that you can fix our broken political system and give every American an equal voice?

By asking these questions and forcing the candidates to answer them with a real plan, this debate could begin educating Americans that there are candidates who are serious about reforming a broken Washington. After all, voters find it hard to believe a candidate on any issue if he or she isn’t serious about fixing our democracy.

As respected Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg wrote this spring, working-class voters are better able to believe in a candidate’s overall policy agenda when they first hear that candidates “understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed. Championing reform of government and the political process is the price of admission with these voters.”

The debate over whether big money influences politics is over. Everyone knows wealthy donors have more of a say in government than ordinary Americans. Democratic candidates agree we need to change the system. The moderators should ask serious, probing questions about making their proposals a reality, not just political rhetoric.


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