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We were spared during Thursday’s Democratic debate from yet another 45-minute back-and-forth over the merits of various healthcare plans, none of which are likely to survive the antidemocratic gauntlet of the Senate. Instead, we were treated to—among other things—a discussion of the current system of campaign finance. Most Americans seem to have come to the conclusion that the system is corrupt, and there’s a good argument that it is the foundational issue in our democracy that prevents action on all others. As it stands, industry and special interest groups can simply buy enough lawmakers to paralyze the legislative process if they don’t like where it’s going. They can spend enough money getting a president elected to get regular access to the White House; it is a system of legalized influence-peddling.
There’s been some consensus in Democratic politics for some time that the system needs to be reformed, but it came to the debate stage Thursday in a very personal way. Specifically, two of the frontrunners in the unacceptably important state of Iowa, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, went to battle. The mayor has begun courting the party’s donor class in a big way, most (in)famously with a Napa Valley fundraiser in an ornate setting that became known as the Wine Cave. Warren attacked Buttigieg on that front, insinuating he would be in thrall to the people paying his campaign bills if elected. Buttigieg responded that he is personally the least wealthy person on stage, and landed one hit in particular on Warren.
It’s true that Warren transferred over $10 million from her Senate campaign account, some of which got there courtesy of the same donor models she now decries. Hypocrisy! Yet Buttigieg’s larger argument is astounding in the context of a Democratic primary. He is asking people to ignore the massive body of evidence—essentially, decades of American political history—and believe that he somehow has the strength and wherewithal to resist the corrupting influence of big donors. Warren, he suggested, lacked that conviction. “If you can’t say no to donors,” he said, “then you have no business running for office in the first place.”
This is not how anything works. Donors give large sums of money because they expect something in return. They’re not dumb. It’s an argument Bernie Sanders has made many times. (Later, Sanders skewered Buttigieg and Biden simultaneously, suggesting they’re in a close-run contest to attract the most billionaire donors. Warren, it should be noted, has a couple herself, though the other two have 10 times more.) But Buttigieg tried to fold this into his larger appeal of anti-Washington post-partisanship—call it The Obama Method for a post-Trump world—by suggesting the Democrats will need the support of people across the political spectrum, from all walks of life. A big tent. Buttigieg’s fundraising policy is not an appeal to independents, though, it’s an appeal to people who are used to purchasing access to political candidates. The mayor’s appeals to independent voters, such as they are, have nothing to do with big-money fundraisers.
The more honest argument, which Buttigieg made towards the end, and which Joe Biden—who had a stronger night than he has in a while—tried out elsewhere, was a kind of realpolitik. The Democratic candidate will need big money, they suggested, to take on the massive financial machine that Donald Trump will be able to call on. As a prodigious liar with no discernible ethics, the president has gone from “self-funding his campaign” early on in 2016—which was never particularly true—to taking as much big fat donor money as he possibly can. There’s a logic, at least, to this argument. The question is what you lose when you take this approach, and whether folks can really believe you’re going to take on the most wealthy and powerful interests when some of those same people powered you to office. How you get there is important, unless all you care about is getting there.