After Thursday night’s debate, this much, at least, is clear: The central issue of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is corruption.
Not purity. Not electability. Not socialism or fiscal responsibility or any of the other buzzwords floating around the party discourse. Corruption.
The corruption question is simple: Will the richest people in America be permitted to put their fingers on the scales of our democracy ― including the inner workings of the Democratic Party?
For two candidates in the race, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the answer to that question has been a consistent, resounding “no.” They don’t court big donors, don’t hold big-dollar fundraisers for them, and won’t even meet with them behind closed doors. If you want Warren’s attention, you can get in line for a selfie with everyone else. Sanders even scrutinizes his contributions and returns checks from people who are too rich.
The message is impossible to misconstrue. These campaigns are putting people first, not money. Their time, attention and agenda are not for sale.
For everyone else in the race … Well, you know some of these rich guys aren’t so bad. Take Craig and Kathryn Hall. They’re in real estate. You should talk to them. Maybe in their wine cave. The one with a chandelier decorated with 1,500 Swarovski crystals.
Questions about corruption continue to whip party leaders into a frenzy like no other issue. Former Obama administration officials, ex-senators, think tank presidents, TV contract Democrats and ― of course ― billionaires, are simply beside themselves that the party they belong to is seriously considering downgrading them to the ordinary status of “citizen.” It’s why billionaire (and former New York City Mayor) Michael Bloomberg has entered the primary. It’s why Bill Gates is thinking about voting for Donald Trump. It’s why “Morning Joe” continues to exist.
When Warren assailed her rival, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at Thursday’s debate for holding his now-infamous fundraiser at a $900-a-bottle California winery, the rest of the evening became an afterthought. Everybody not named Sanders and Warren became desperate to prove that their opponents were hypocrites or that their own campaign finances were on the up-and-up. Buttigieg called Warren a “millionaire.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said fighting about fundraising standards was a distraction from the real issues.
TV Democrats who interviewed Warren later that night were incensed. CNN’s Van Jones said Warren’s refusal to hold fundraisers with billionaires was a “purity test” that made “a lot of people feel left out” and was therefore “elitist.” Let that sink in: Jones portrayed the refusal to grant special consideration of the rich as elitist. Jones even asked if it would be corrupt for him, as a millionaire, to give to Warren’s campaign.
“Buttigieg said the Democrats are going to tie one hand behind their back if they continue on your road with this,” added anchor Chris Cuomo.
Former Obama confidant David Axelrod — another CNN talking head — pointed out that Warren had raised money from wealthy donors in the past without turning her office into a favor-mill for the rich. If Warren could stand up to donor pressure, Axelrod suggested, why wouldn’t any other Democrat?
CNN’s Democrats aren’t alone in their elite anger. TV lawyer Lisa Bloom, a one-time Harvey Weinstein ally, derided Warren on Twitter for turning down money that could be used to defeat Trump. “Pete Buttigieg is right,” Bloom wrote. “We don’t need purity tests. Who cares if he had a fundraiser in a wine cave. Our country is currently run by a whining cave man. Take any legal money you can raise and beat him in November.”
People don’t really frame other pressing issues as purity tests, of course. When a Democrat gets up and talks about voting rights as a basic, inviolable commitment of democratic government, no self-proclaimed centrist rises to emphasize the need to make pragmatic concessions to racists.
Axelrod’s insistence that big money doesn’t necessarily corrupt lawmakers, meanwhile, is akin to the argument put forward by the Supreme Court majority in its infamous 2010 Citizens United decision: that money in politics is not corrupt unless it involves an explicit trading of political favors for cash.
Until very recently, it would have been disgraceful for a Democrat to publicly champion such an idea. In the modern Democratic party, corruption has never been conceived of as a narrow question of trading favors for cash. It’s about who counts in a democracy, and how citizens hold their leaders accountable. Corruption contributes to who sets the agenda, whose problems are considered the most pressing, which bills get written, which get a vote, and who gets fancy Washington jobs. If you want to be the next ambassador to Denmark or Barbados, the best way to go about doing it is to attend a fundraiser and tell the candidate that’s what you want. (Kathryn Hall, co-owner of the crystal-laden wine cave, served as ambassador to Austria under President Bill Clinton.)
And for most Democrats, Bloom’s idea of accepting literally any legal money is noxious. Some sources are just obviously improper ― the NRA, oil executives, Harvey Weinstein. Democrats don’t want their leaders taking money from these people for a reason: It’s corrupt. They don’t want their elected representatives to be thinking about Harvey Weinstein’s interests, consciously or unconsciously.
Instead of framing corruption as a basic dispute over democratic values, Buttigieg, Bloom and Cuomo present the issue as a mere campaign tactic. But even there, Warren and Sanders are not paying a price for their so-called purity. They’ve consistently out-raised everyone else in the race, including Buttigieg, despite their focus on small donors and detailed policy agendas that infuriate the superrich.
In the fall of 2010, Axelrod, then a member of President Barack Obama’s White House, appeared on ”Face the Nation” to downplay the severity of a “robo-signing” epidemic that was sweeping the housing industry. At the time, thousands of mortgages were frozen because the banks that wanted to foreclose on them couldn’t document who actually owned the property. Axelrod promised the administration was working for a speedy resolution.
“We are working closely with these institutions to make sure they go expedite the process of going back and reconstructing [mortgages] and throwing out those that don’t work,” he said.
It wasn’t true. The banking problem was not a technical hiccup and the Obama administration was not lighting a fire under the banks to sort it out. It was instead a widespread fraud which the biggest banks in the country eventually agreed to pay tens of billions of dollars to settle. Obama’s Treasury Department had essentially turned over the administration of its own anti-foreclosure initiative to big banks, which were squeezing homeowners for whatever they could, with or without the right paperwork, often overcharging families or even wrongfully evicting them. After dragging its feet about this outrage for years, the Justice Department under Obama eventually inked a settlement, and then promptly declined to prosecute anyone for the wrongdoing involved.
Maybe it was a coincidence that Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign raised nearly $44 million from the financial sector ― more than any other candidate in history ― including more than $1 million from employees of Goldman Sachs, nearly $1 million from JPMorganites, and over three-quarters of a million from his supporters at Citigroup, some of whom ended up staffing his administration.
So guys like Axelrod get touchy when candidates talk about corruption. But it’s not just people with fancy TV contracts. Rank-and-file Democratic voters don’t like corruption, but they also don’t like to think about ways their favorite Democrats have failed them in the past. Accepting the standard Warren and Sanders are setting means coming to terms with the fact that Obama and Bill Clinton’s administrations engaged in activity that is hard to defend. Even Warren and Sanders know that’s a big ask for most Democratic voters, so they rarely apply the implications of their own rhetoric to Obama’s activities.
But the divide over corruption isn’t going away. It cuts to the core of what it means to be a member of a party that calls itself democratic. Do Democrats represent everyone, or are some Democrats more equal than others?