The Most Important Issue Missing From the Democratic Debates

Political reform is the only way to enact the party’s policy ideas. Why aren’t Democrats talking more about it?

After three rounds of 2020 Democratic primary debates, a predictable pattern has emerged. First, moderators press candidates to highlight their differences on major issues like health care, immigration reform, or gun control—ostensibly so we, the viewers, can gain a better sense of the distinctions. For example, in Thursday night’s debate, Beto O’Rourke came out in favor of a mandatory gun buyback program; Amy Klobuchar said she preferred starting with a voluntary buyback; Cory Booker supported gun licensing; and all the candidates appeared to agree on universal background checks.

Next, a candidate uses an issue as a springboard to mention political dysfunction or the corrosive influence of money in politics. This time, it was Elizabeth Warren, who gave a reason for why Congress hasn’t enacted widely supported proposals like universal background checks: “The answer is corruption, pure and simple.” Then the candidate proposes a solution to the dysfunction. Warren called for eliminating the filibuster. Andrew Yang proposed giving every American one hundred “democracy dollars” to donate to the candidate or cause of their choice. In the first debate, Pete Buttigieg said we may need a constitutional amendment to “clear up” Citizens United.

The audience applauds, but then the conversation stops. Moderators move onto the next issue as if political reform is either unimportant or as if a candidate’s ideas for reform were implausible. The problem is that political reform is never treated as an issue itself, which is a shame. Not only is it a winning issue for Democrats. It’s necessary for Democrats to implement most of the plans they spend the rest of their debates discussing.

Politically speaking, Democrats should be talking about political reform whenever they can. There are few other issues where Democrats diverge so widely from their Republican counterparts while staying in step with the vast majority of Americans. Polling released in 2018 revealed that 66 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of Independents, and 85 percent of Democrats support a constitutional amendment to let Congress set limits on campaign related spending. Yet only one current Republican member of Congress—John Katko, of New York—has signed on to support such an amendment while more than 140 Democratic House members and 46 Senators have expressed support for such a proposal. Similarly, 236 House Democrats support H.R.1, a bill that includes provisions to protect voting rights and enact publicly financed elections; no Republicans have signed on. It’s as if Republicans are giving Democrats a fastball down the middle but Democrats are afraid to swing.

Political reform also highlights one of Donald Trump’s most prominent broken promises—draining the swamp. Trump ran as an outsider who vowed to clean up Washington, but even many of his supporters acknowledge that he hasn’t. He filled his cabinet with individuals from the top one percent. He criticized former Attorney General Jeff Sessions when congressmen Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter were indicted for financial malfeasance. His Tax Cuts and Jobs Act disproportionately benefits the richest Americans. Trump hasn’t drained the swamp so much as wallowed in it.

The eventual Democratic nominee is not going to defeat Trump solely by distinguishing herself on policy differences. It will depend on big, favorable contrasts. Advocating to get rid of big money in politics is one of the most favorable distinctions Democrats have against Trump. They should use it.

More importantly, structural reform is essential to actually put into effect many of the proposals Democrats are discussing. Last week, the party dedicated an entire town hall to climate change and outlined a number of bold plans—which, to be sure, represents a strong contrast with Republicans. It was especially admirable after the Democratic National Committee nixed a debate devoted to the issue. But as long as the fossil fuel industry spends more than $100 million a year on lobbying, the chances of any of these plans coming to fruition are slim.

The same can be said on health care. Truthfully, Medicare For All may not pass even with a Democratic President and control of both houses of Congress. Only fourteen Democrats have signed on to Bernie Sanders’ Senate bill. And yet, even more incremental health care reforms are unlikely to succeed unless the filibuster is eliminated and the power of pharmaceutical companies is drastically diminished through limits on lobbying and campaign spending. For years, pharmaceutical companies have successfully lobbied against measures that could keep prescription drugs costs down, like allowing the government to negotiate with drug companies or making it easier for generic drugs to come to market. There is no structural reason to believe the next Congress will be any different. Even if Democrats reclaim the Senate, Mitch McConnell could still employ the filibuster.

So while the first three debates have resulted in detailed discussions of health care, trade, and immigration, political reform has been given short shrift. Part of the fault lies with the debates’ moderators. (How many times must Amy Klobuchar be asked whose plans she considers “extreme?”) But the bulk of the problem is that there are no easy answers, so candidates are reluctant to do more than recite applause lines, which ultimately undermines the very purpose of debates—to set priorities, flesh out plans, and establish differences between candidates.

Warren and Buttigieg support ending the filibuster, but Harris, Sanders, and Booker are reluctant, considering how it has served those Democrats in the Senate minority. Voters, however, deserve to hear that discussion. Passing campaign finance reform has historically been a bipartisan issue in Congress, but the Supreme Court, through Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United, and other decisions has struck down campaign spending limits on individuals, corporations, and unions. Bipartisan support could empower the return of these reforms, but besides Klobuchar, other candidates seem unwilling to mention the prospect of working with Republicans. The next time a candidate mentions overturning Citizens United, they should be pressed on how exactly how they plan to do it .

None of this is to say that the Democratic debates have been bereft of substance; they haven’t. At times, they have been positively mired in details, as when Julian Castro pressed O’Rourke about the federal statute criminalizing illegal immigration. But after a half an hour of candidates arguing over Medicare For All versus a public option, it sounds more like Democrats are debating what they would do as president of a theoretical country where sweeping legislation is easily enacted. It doesn’t seem rooted in reality. If Democrats want to make their plans possible and put Trump on the defensive, offering credible ideas for political reform is the only real place to start.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization focused on campaign finance reform and increasing civic engagement.