Over the past year, every member of the often-ballooning and occasionally shrinking field of Democratic presidential candidates has tried to convince an uncommitted and nervous electorate that they are the candidate to defeat President Donald Trump.
Every candidate has their own theory of how to effectively oust the incumbent. Former Vice President Joe Biden has argued that his career credentials and familiarity with a broad swath of voters put him in the best position to trounce Trump. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has said that proposing bold liberal policies will inspire unprecedented turnout and win over Democrats who backed Trump in 2016. Before she dropped out, California Sen. Kamala Harris had posited that the key to defeating the president was firing up disengaged African-American voters in swing states.
Last Thursday, at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren finally unveiled her theory: The candidate who can defeat Trump is the one who will put the focus on the long-standing political corruption that helped sweep Trump into office and that his administration has only exacerbated.
“That’s our path to beat Donald Trump in 2020,” Warren said. “Americans of all political stripes are looking for a candidate who is serious about fighting Washington corruption. They know until someone is willing to do that, nothing else will get done. Demonstrating a real commitment to reform is our best general election contrast with a corrupt president. It’s how we win moderates, independents and disaffected Republicans.”
Warren’s take, like that of every other candidate, is a bit self-serving. Promising to fight corruption is her political bread and butter. She pointedly noted that nearly a year into the Democratic primary fight, “no other candidate has put out anything close to my sweeping plan to root out Washington corruption.”
Media coverage of Warren often focuses on the ambitiousness of her plans to aggressively tax the wealthy and spend that money on health care, child care and education ― ideas that cause unease among moderate Democrats, who fear they could alienate the party’s financial backers and independent voters. While the Warren campaign never backs away from those plans ― the campaign, after all, is selling a “billionaire tears” mug ― they are not its central thesis. From the start, her campaign has emphasized the battle against the corruption that blocks popular legislation on everything from guns to climate to health care from becoming law.
To Warren and her team, a believable promise to battle corruption is the best way to win over swing voters. Both recent political history and polling suggest they might be right: A survey conducted for the Democratic campaign finance reform group End Citizens United found that 89% of voters in 26 congressional swing districts rated cracking down on political corruption as either a “top” or “major” priority. That was higher than for any other issue, even making health care more affordable or protecting Social Security and Medicare.
But winning the argument, Democratic operatives say, will require a focus on the issue, particularly against a Republican president who was able to convince many voters in 2016 that he planned to crack down on corruption.
“Trump isn’t going to quit lying about how he drained the swamp,” said Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, which is neutral in the 2020 presidential primary. “It’s up to Democrats to make the case about how they’re going to reform the system and how it impacts their day-to-day life.”
The Warren team isn’t alone in its belief in the corruption argument. While her proposed wealth tax, support for the (eventual) passage of “Medicare for All” and plans to push for a fracking ban will all likely turn off moderate Democrats, both Democratic House freshmen who won Trump districts and the Senate candidates whom Democrats are counting on to win back the upper chamber are proposing legislation and plans to battle corruption, sometimes echoing Warren’s language when doing so.
Other Democratic presidential candidates at least occasionally discuss corruption ― besides Warren, Muller noted that South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and a number of second-tier candidates have also promised to make an anti-corruption bill their top priority in office ― and any of those candidates could make it more of a central issue if they end going one-on-one with Trump. But a Warren nomination would guarantee that fighting corruption would be front and center for Democrats as they head into a heated political battle for control of the presidency, both chambers of Congress and crucial state legislatures in November 2020.
“I think Democrats who are running in 2020 need to lean into cleaning up corruption even more. I don’t think we can overstate how important this issue is to voters,” Muller said. “It has to be essential to your brand. It has to be part of the day-in, day-out narrative of what’s wrong with this country and what Democrats are going to do to fix it.”
Sanders has aired an ad in Iowa in which he calls Trump “the most corrupt president in American history.” Like Sanders and Warren, both Buttigieg and Biden have rolled out plans to reform the campaign finance system that include public campaign financing.
But none has been as consistently focused on the issue as Warren. Her famous plans have faded for now from the spotlight, but nearly all of them, from agriculture to Pentagon procurement, have provisions designed to limit the ways that lobbyists and industry can influence government. She released another anti-corruption plan, this one focused on money laundering and foreign shell companies, on Tuesday morning. In her stump speech, the senator regularly cites either the influence of the billionaire Koch brothers to explain why Washington has ignored climate change or the power of the National Rifle Association to explain why the federal government has done little to prevent mass shootings.
“It looks like we’re trying to solve a lot of different problems, but we’re only trying to solve one problem,” Jon Donenberg, the policy director for Warren’s presidential campaign, told HuffPost this past summer. “It’s the rigged system; it’s the corrupt government and economy that only benefits those at the top. Every solution flows from that.”
Her most sweeping plan to battle corruption, introduced before her speech in New York’s Washington Square Park this fall, contains more than 100 provisions, from banning government officials from trading individual stocks while in office, to preventing corporate lobbyists from getting a job in the federal government for six years after lobbying, to imposing a tax on companies that spend more than $500,000 a year on lobbying.
Warren still has to convince the Democratic primary electorate that her plan to beat Trump is the best. After peaking in the early fall, her polling numbers have fallen, though she remains firmly in the top tier of candidates. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday found that 80% of Democrats thought it was “likely” Biden could beat Trump, but only 60% said the same of Warren.
She is now turning her corruption focus into an offensive against other candidates. Toward the end of her speech in New Hampshire last week, Warren ― who stopped holding high-dollar fundraisers when her presidential run began ― suggested that Biden’s and Buttigieg’s extensive efforts to woo wealthy donors would hurt them as general election nominees.
“Voters will not trust a candidate who won’t make a single difficult decision that might cut down on the access and influence of wealthy donors,” Warren said. “And voters will be right.”
Democrats might think pushing the corruption argument against Trump will be easy: The impeachment hearings steadily built the case that he pressured a foreign government to assist him in the 2020 election. A major reason anybody might buy the lease to his D.C. hotel is the number of foreign governments holding pricey events there. CBS News caught the Republican National Committee soliciting donations from Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to the Bahamas. A Trump tax break intended to help poor people is instead aiding the construction of apartments at a marina owned by a Republican donor. Last week, a judge forced the president to pay a $2 million fine for misusing donations to the Trump Foundation.
But the Democratic Party has found convincing voters that Trump is substantially more corrupt than a typical politician to be frustratingly difficult. While Democrats persuaded swing voters that they were better positioned to clean up Washington than incumbent House Republicans during the 2018 midterm elections, making the same argument regarding the president has been easier said than done. According to polling, focus groups and interviews with political operatives, Trump’s image as an outsider businessman who wants to drain the swamp has proven surprisingly resilient.
While Democrats have made some progress, many voters are still inclined to view Trump as no more or less dedicated to eliminating corruption than most other politicians. Another End Citizens United poll, conducted this summer, found that 31% of voters in swing states trusted Trump to crack down on political corruption, while 30% trusted the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. A plurality of 39% weren’t sure.
And a New York Times poll of six swing states in October found a 46% plurality of voters thought that Trump’s behavior regarding Ukraine was typical of how politicians behave. Only 42% said it was much worse than most other politicians.
Part of Democrats’ struggle arises from simple partisanship: Republicans aren’t likely to call their party’s leader corrupt. But some of it also traces back to Trump’s rhetoric and how his attacks on the “rigged system” give him leeway to engage in behavior that would sink a normal presidency.
As Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist, put it in a Medium post: “From baldly transactional diplomacy to crude international fishing expeditions, nothing the President does or has done is beyond the pale, because it is merely an acknowledgement of How Things Work. Everyone lies, cheats, and steals. Trump is just more honest about it, you see.”
Jeff Hauser, a Democratic strategist who runs the Revolving Door Project, argues that the problem is exacerbated by Democrats’ failure to effectively hold oversight hearings on the Trump administration’s corruption.
“The media has done a relatively good job and Democrats have done a terrible job,” he said, citing the failure of House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) to examine the Trump administration’s ties to for-profit colleges as one example. “There’s been no comprehensive efforts to connect corporate overreach, Trump corruption and economic outcomes for ordinary Americans.”
Still, there are some encouraging signs: Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC, found in recent polling that 53% of voters in what it views as the four most important swing states — Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — view political corruption as a reason to vote Trump out of office, while only 30% said it was a reason to reelect him.
Guy Cecil, the Priorities USA chairman, said the group’s anti-Trump advertising will soon focus more on corruption. For example, he said to expect ads highlighting the Trump administration’s ties to for-profit colleges who pushed to weaken protections for students and to polluters who urged the Environmental Protection Agency to make it harder to enact new clean air and water rules.
“You’ll see us do more on corruption,” Cecil said, adding that it was unlikely the group would pay for advertising focused on impeachment or Trump’s behavior regarding Ukraine. “The key is to explain how corruption often impacts the people that we’re talking to.”
Do not expect Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who won a Staten Island-based seat in 2018, to endorse Warren in the primary. He’s a committed moderate who swore in an interview last month that he was not paying attention to the presidential race.
But a key part of his own reelection message sounds a lot like Warren’s. “It’s very clear that until we get rid of the pervasive and corrupting influence of money in politics, we can’t get anything else done,” Rose said, just hours after he had introduced legislation with another vulnerable freshman, Rep. Josh Harder (D-Calif.), to ban corporate PACs entirely.
Rose has since also introduced legislation with Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) ― a more liberal freshman Democrat, and a protege and political backer of Warren’s ― to require more financial disclosures from direct relatives of the president and from political appointees.
Rose’s positioning is indicative of the comfort that moderate Democratic officials and candidates have with Warren’s push to crack down on the influence of lobbyists, corporations and money in politics. Of the 40 (mostly moderate) Democrats who won Republican-held House seats in 2018, 27 of them had sworn off money from corporate PACs ― a point nearly all of them emphasized in television advertising. And two leading Democratic challengers for GOP-held Senate seats in 2020 ― Arizona’s Mark Kelly and North Carolina’s Cal Cunningham ― have already rolled out plans to battle corruption.
Meredith Kelly, a Democratic strategist who was the communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2018 cycle, said voters’ concern about the influence of campaign donations and how that has prevented progress on issues like gun control spiked following Trump’s election.
“Voters started to see the direct link between money in politics and the lack of progress on issues they care about,” she said, noting that coincided with the emergence of End Citizens United as a major player within the Democratic Party. “It was an obscure concept before. It became more of a motivator for voters after Trump was elected.”
There are signs Republicans are recognizing a threat: GOP groups have worked repeatedly in recent months to downplay the impact of swearing off corporate PACs, noting there are other ways for corporations and lobbyists to influence politicians.
Rose, a former collegiate wrestler and Afghanistan War veteran, said that battling corruption was about picking a side between “people who can’t afford a lobbyist” and powerful interests like pharmaceutical companies.
“The American people are smart. They can smell a bullshit artist from a mile away,” he said. “We’re not going to stop until people are elected to these offices on the strength of their ideas and the will of the people behind them, and not on the size of their checkbook.”
The ability of Warren’s message to unite the party is also visible on the campaign trail. When Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) ― a member of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the moderate New Democrat Coalition ― introduced Warren at an event in North Las Vegas last month, he noted that he agreed with her more on fighting corruption than on any other issue.
“Are we ready to call out corruption?” he said to a roar from the crowd. “Are we ready for Elizabeth Warren?”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that Rep. Rose is a former amateur boxer. He is, in fact, a former collegiate wrestler.