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A new progressive standard on campaign cash: It can’t come from corporations

Greg Nash

You can’t run for president as a Democrat if you’re going to take unlimited cash from corporations. 

That’s the lesson Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) appears to have learned from two weeks of contemplation after first telling a constituent she might take contributions from corporation political action committees (PACs). More recently, she told a radio show audience that she would, in fact, not.

Harris’s decision reflects the growing movement towards a more progressive, grassroots driven Democratic party.

{mosads}The current dispute within the Democratic Party is reminiscent of Meat Loaf’s 1993 classic hit ballad, “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” The song title’s inherent contradiction captures the split within the party on campaign finance reform. Will you do anything to defeat Trump in 2020, including taking unlimited sums of campaign cash from anyone offering it, or not?

Philippe Reines, a longtime spokesman for Hillary Clinton, perhaps best encapsulates the “whatever it takes” camp. He came out swinging in the pages of the Washington Post with a salvo to future Democratic presidential hopefuls. “Don’t declare you won’t take money from lobbyists,” Reines exhorted. “Take cigarette money. Counterfeit your own.”

He went on to warn, “Don’t hire anyone who says they’d rather lose than stoop to (Trump’s) level. If you say it, get out of the way for someone living in the real world.”

It’s safe to say Reines might have been being intentionally hyperbolic about encouraging treasury fraud, but you get his point — there’s no room for moral integrity in presidential politics. There’s nothing inherently wrong with speaking out of both sides of your mouth, outright lying, or deceiving your base, Reines seems to advise.


That might have been conventional wisdom once. But now it’s safe to say that Reines’s point of view is not widely held among Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls. Sen. Harris follows in the footsteps of other previously centrist-leaning Democrats like Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), all of whom have pledged not to accept corporate PAC donations. And they in turn were following the progressive stalwarts of the party, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who said no to corporate PAC money a long time ago. 

In other words, anyone seriously being considered to win the Democratic Party nomination for president — at least at this early stage — says they’re going to do it without corporate cash.

The good news for them? They don’t need it to win. 

Bernie Sanders proved the viability of a serious grassroots-funded presidential campaign with his now famous average donation of $27. Millions and millions of ordinary Americans were so inspired by the Vermont senator’s progressive politics and apparently honest approach to politics that they became political donors for the first time. That authenticity was rooted in the sincere statement Sanders could make that he never took a check in exchange for a vote.

Beyond just viable, grassroots campaigns are wildly popular. Note the rising prominence of the Poor Peoples Campaign taking on extreme inequality, or groups like Real Justice taking on criminal justice reform. These social movements are accountable to their wide base of people-powered funding support and reflect the values of their supporters. Voters are looking for the same relationship to their elected officials, a reflection of their values that simply can’t be achieved with the Reines approach.

Corruption has become so mainstream in the American political system that we hardly bat an eye when corporations exert undue influence over elected officials. In the wake of Citizens United, this has become altogether commonplace, although the practice was well established before that landmark 2010 case.

“An honest politician” sounds like a contradiction in terms to many in this deeply cynical political moment. Such low regard for elected officials is absolutely tied to the complete disregard for ethics encouraged by party machinists like Reines and embodied by the current president.

Changing this dynamic means refusing to engage in the inherently flawed race to the moral bottom. It means inspiring disillusioned voters and establishing a positive vision for the country. And it doesn’t require corporate cash.

Josh Hoxie directs the Taxation and Opportunity Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank dedicated to building a more equitable, ecologically sustainable, and peaceful society..

Tags Bernie Sanders Cory Booker Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Kirsten Gillibrand Maria Cantwell

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