No thanks to the moderators, but finally, a Democratic debate began to address the questions of democratic reform. Elizabeth Warren focused her closing on the “corruption” that must be fixed before any of the other things that everyone is hoping for are to be possible. But far more interesting — and frankly more hopeful—was Bernie Sanders expressly declaring that beyond the (maybe hopeless) task of overturning Citizens United, “we need,” he declared, “to move to public funding of elections.”
These are words that politicians find difficult to utter — at least outside of carefully curated public events—and this is the first time any candidate uttered them in a Democratic debate. Andrew Yang in an earlier debate raised his bold and powerful idea of giving every voter $100 in “democracy dollars,” which voters would then give to candidates to help them fund their campaigns. Most pundits, unfairly, saw this as yet another Yang give away, missing how critically it would change the way Washington works.
Sanders is now following Yang’s lead and speaking openly of public funding—not as something “over the long term,” as he used to describe it, but as something for right now. He promises to give voters “democracy vouchers” which they, in turn, give candidates running for office. This was precisely the system that candidates for Seattle’s City Council used to resist the force of Amazon’s extraordinary spending in that race this month. As applied to Congress, that kind of public funding would radically change the power of special interests in Congress. It is critically important that Sanders is now speaking openly about the idea in a nationally televised Democratic debate.
Tom Steyer quickly diverted that hopeful turn — clumsily and bizarrely, as he wants people to believe that he too supports fundamental reform. And of course, the moderators — who in no debate have asked Democratic candidates about how they will change the way campaigns are funded — let Steyer, the billionaire, turn the conversation away from how to reduce dependence on billionaires.
Yet this is an important moment to reflect on just how far the national debate on political reform has progressed. Though you wouldn’t know it from these debates, there are now more declared reformers running for president than at any time in the history of American politics. Nine of the remaining candidates — including seven on that stage — have committed to fundamental democratic reform and, more importantly, committed to making that reform the first thing they do upon assuming office.
These critical pledges won’t mean anything if America doesn’t understand them. And more importantly, they won’t matter to this primary election unless the difference among these candidates was clearer. There is an enormous difference between the fundamental change that Sanders and Yang are pledging — democracy vouchers—and the promise of small-dollar matching funds that most of the others have endorsed. Vouchers would give every American a stake in funding political campaigns. They would make many more politicians much more focused on the citizen funders of their campaigns rather than the cronies or special interests who fund campaigns now.
Skepticism about the promises that the Democrats are making in this campaign is the most important negative that the field faces right now. People might love their ideas, but that means nothing if people don’t believe them because Washington is so broken. That is the reason the advisers have begun to insist that candidates push reform into the foreground. That is the one perspective that actually unites left and right in America. And that should become the one question that we increasingly ask the candidates who ask for our vote:
How will you make your promises even possible, given the corruption that so defeats our government?