To beat Donald Trump in 2020, the democratic presidential nominee will have to solve a familiar progressive puzzle: how to win over voters who hate big political money without unilaterally disarming against a well-funded opponent.
So far, no leading Democrat has figured out how to make the pieces fit. While the party’s primary candidates have scrambled to outdo one another in “purity” pledges, from rejecting corporate PAC money to returning lobbyists’ donations, such promises are largely symbolic. Only a fraction of campaign receipts come from corporate PACs, and that money is fully disclosed and subject to strict limits in any case. As for lobbyists, so many operate outside the disclosure rules that any “ban” contains a giant loophole.
The bigger money—and the bigger threat to democracy—comes from ill-regulated, billionaire-backed groups like super PACs, secretive nonprofits, and candidate-party joint fundraising committees that skirt the contribution limits. Democratic presidential hopefuls have paid lip service to rejecting such players, but cash-flush progressive groups have already announced plans to spend tens of millions to defeat Trump, and no one expects the Federal Election Commission to lift a finger to enforce the rules.
Yes, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both pledged to eschew private, high-dollar fundraisers, at least for the primary—the only big money promise that amounts to much. But Sanders and Warren only raised $18.2 million and $6 million respectively through the first quarter of this year—while Trump netted more than $30 million for his campaign committee alone. Joe Biden says he’s raised $20 million since joining the race in April, but the former vice president’s cozy relations with wealthy donors may make him an unconvincing champion of reform.
It’s important for Democrats to get this right. In 2016, Hillary Clinton rolled out an elaborate political money reform platform, but she failed to effectively sell it to voters. She also had something of a tin ear when it came to the drumbeat of criticism surrounding her lucrative Wall Street speeches and the millions sloshing through the Clinton Foundation, making it tough for her to shake Trump’s “Crooked Hilary” moniker.
Biden may risk falling into the same trap. Biden has said he won’t take lobbyist or corporate PAC money, but his kickoff fundraiser was hosted by Comcast executive David Cohen—underscoring how little such pledges mean. At another fundraiser, Biden tried to make a point about income inequality, but ended up telling wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change,” and saying “I won’t let you down,” muddling his message. He’s said he won’t take help from super PACs, which may raise and spend unlimited sums as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates, but his allies have launched a “For the People” super PAC that will back him anyway.
To be fair, Biden and his fellow Democrats face an unusually well-funded opponent in Trump, who broke all norms by launching his re-election campaign on day one of his presidency. In contrast to his 2016 campaign, which was marked by chaos and infighting, Trump’s reelection bid is a well-oiled money machine, sharing staff and office space with the Republican National Committee, and backed by more than a dozen allied outside groups, including several super PACs and nonprofits with questionably close links to team Trump.
Trump’s suggestion this month that he would accept opposition research from a foreign government—even as Democrats continue investigating Russia’s role in 2016—makes clear that he’s not worried about the rules. With both large and small donors flocking to support him, Trump has raised a cool $36 million since officially announcing his reelection bid last week. The RNC, which is raising money jointly with Trump, has $37 million cash on hand, compared with the Democratic National Committee’s $8.3 million.
Trump’s freewheeling fundraising could hurt him, too. Having campaigned in 2016 on his promise to “drain the swamp,” and on his supposed disdain for and independence from special interests, Trump has presided over arguably the most corrupt administration in American history. He and members of his cabinet face numerous, ongoing complaints and investigations involving alleged campaign-finance and ethics violations. Any talk of “draining the swamp” would ring awfully hollow this time around.
The question is whether any Democrat can exploit this opening, while also amassing a big enough war chest to effectively compete with Trump. It will take a lot more than symbolic “no corporate PAC” pledges. The Democrat who solves progressives’ big-money paradox will need three things. One, a compelling message that taps voters’ anger over corruption as effectively as Trump did—however duplicitously—in 2016. Two, a robust policy platform that tackles the biggest actual threats to our system, including foreign money, secret spending, and unlimited contributions.
Three, a plan to follow both the spirit and the letter of the law. Given how thoroughly the FEC has abdicated its oversight role, this would be a surprisingly radical step. It would mean no wink-and-nod coordination between candidates and super PACs. It would mean no shadowy foundations and nonprofits that “educate” voters about policy issues while sucking up massive, undisclosed corporate donations. It would mean no joint fundraising committees that do an end-run around the contribution limits. And it would mean a lot more than many of the gimmicky purity tests now popular among Democrats.