Democratic Candidates Should Use the Debate to Talk Money in Politics

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Leading up to the first Democratic debate on Tuesday, CNN solicited questions from the public online. Scrolling through, one theme surfaces again and again: money in politics. What’s your plan to get big money out of politics? What will you do about it in the first 100 days? Do you support overturning Citizens United

The heavy focus on fixing our broken campaign finance system shouldn’t come as a surprise. Poll after poll shows that money in politics is at the front of voters’ minds. When a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in June asked Americans to rank their biggest concerns about 2016, a full third highlighted wealthy interests’ influence over the outcome – the top concern among all the issues tested. Another national poll from The New York Times and CBS News this summer found that 85 percent of Americans think our campaign finance system needs either fundamental changes or to be completely rebuilt. And a new Bloomberg Politics poll puts the percentage of the country that thinks we should overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which unleashed the tsunami of outside spending by corporations and the super wealthy, at a full 78 percent.  

Even in a deeply divided country, this is something we can all agree on: there’s way too much big money in our elections, and we need to fix it. 

In July, 13 reform organizations offered our vision of what that fix should look like when we released a comprehensive “Fighting Big Money” agenda and sent it to the leading presidential candidates. The idea was that instead of just talking about the problem of money in politics, candidates need to lay out the policies they would pursue if elected – from small donor public financing, to increased transparency about political spending, to a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United

To their credit, the leading Democratic candidates agree with voters and made solutions to the corrosive influence of big money a central part of their campaigns (while so far GOP candidates have largely stuck to vague platitudes rather than concrete solutions). Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley released plans that cover the majority of the policies outlined in the “Fighting Big Money” agenda. Bernie Sanders continues to make campaign finance reform a cornerstone of his campaign and career.  

The Democratic debate offers candidates the opportunity to move beyond a discussion of solutions they support and tell voters about their plans to implement those solutions. Moderator Anderson Cooper should acknowledge the public’s deep concern about this issue by asking at least one question about money in politics, and candidates should lay out the specific steps they would take within their first hundred days in office and beyond. 

As the candidates prepare to take the stage Tuesday, they would do well to remember that in even a deeply divided electorate, across the board Americans want to see leaders ready to take on our broken campaign finance system. We know that no matter what other issues we care most about, from gun violence to the environment to job protections, we’re not going to see real progress until our political system is centered around everyday people rather than the interests of corporations and billionaires. The leading Democratic candidates have made clear they support a suite of solutions; at the debate they should tell us how they will put those plans to work.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Marge Baker of People for the American Way
Marge Baker is the executive vice president of People For the American Way and oversees People For’s policy and programmatic work, including its campaigns on the courts, nominations, LGBT equality, voting rights and elections. She has worked for nearly 30 years in various public service roles.
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