Do's and Don'ts for Addressing Political Corruption in 2020

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Do's and Don'ts for Addressing Political Corruption in 2020
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Do's and Don'ts for Addressing Political Corruption in 2020
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
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America is facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to win game-changing national political reforms that would repair our broken political system. Every Democratic presidential candidate is championing a host of reforms, such as reducing the influence of big money in politics, expanding voting rights and access, and protecting our elections. Most importantly, Americans continue to tell pollsters that poor leadership in Washington and political corruption are the top problems facing the country – and want them to be addressed now.

But as the country is just days away from the first 2020 Democratic presidential debate, there is one question that looms large in the minds of reformers: Will candidates walk the walk, or merely make promises? Like all debates, elbows will be thrown, policy positions challenged, and the cameras will likely focus on the one-line zinger or the unanticipated gaffe.

Who is the real reformer? Who will work with Republicans? Who can actually get this accomplished?

The stakes are high. Voters don’t generally trust either party on these issues. It’s partially why Donald Trump was elected as a “disrupter” candidate. The eventual nominees will likely raise at least $1 billion each. So what will that say about the candidates and our broken political system?

We know small donors will play a big role. In fact, for the first time, the Democratic National Committee is allowing candidates to qualify for the first and second debates by meeting a donor threshold. In this case, contenders can become eligible if they collect 65,000 unique campaign contributors — with at least 200 in 20 different states. (Candidates could also break 1 percent support in three polls approved by the DNC. Both of these thresholds will be raised for the third debate in September.)

The DNC’s decision clearly has its roots in 2018, when the Democratic Party gained control of the U.S. House for the first time since 2010, won seven governorships, and flipped hundreds of state House and Senate seats, in part because of grassroots fundraising armies. The party’s go-to platform for online, small-dollar donations (those who give $200 or less) — ActBlue — eclipsed $1 billion in donations to Democratic causes and candidates during the last election cycle. And according to news reports, donations have accelerated since then.

But campaigns know that there’s another side to fundraising that will come into play as we get deeper into the presidential contest. The more that candidates need to stay competitive — and the more insidious super PACs and dark money groups that they need to fend off — the more they will potentially rely on donors who can write thousand-dollar checks, elite bundlers, or outside groups to come to their rescue.

Here’s the three-part litmus test for Democrats who want to win the White House and actually achieve success in cleaning up Washington.

First, reject corporate PAC money. Do not accept corporate PAC contributions to your campaign accounts or leadership PACs. Though it is a small amount of money in the big picture, it sends a powerful message to voters that you are prioritizing their interests over the elite and ultra-wealthy.

Second, if you use big-money bundlers, disclose them. Republican and Democratic candidates have already embraced bundlers -- and it is likely more of them will as time goes on. Bundlers are individuals who frequently raise vast sums of money for candidates, ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. These highly connected individuals are often rewarded with plum appointments because of their work on behalf of candidates who eventually win. It is vitally important for all candidates in the 2020 election cycle to disclose their bundlers so Americans know who is trying to influence candidates through these bundled contributions.

Third, disavow super PACs and dark money groups. Last election cycle, liberal dark money groups outpaced conservative ones in midterm spending, a dangerous trend that lets secret money groups attack candidates from the shadows while wielding more than $1 billion since they exploded onto the scene after the Citizens United decision. And no candidate who wants to repair the broken political system should be appearing at fundraisers for super PACS that are supporting their campaign or attacking other candidates.

Transformational leadership combined with successful execution are attractive presidential qualities to win both the votes and soul of the Democratic Party. We have seen more than two years of a president who overwhelmingly failed to drain the swamp, and the swamp now needs cleaning up more than ever.  The country deserves better and the 2020 election is the perfect stage on which to debate the crisis facing our political system.

Tim Roemer is a former Democratic U.S. congressman from Indiana and former U.S. ambassador to India and co-chairman of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus. 



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