By Jason Harrow
Ten minutes. That’s about the most possible time any particular will get a chance to speak at the much-anticipated Democratic debates this week. With ten candidates on stage for each two-hour event, plus five moderators, plus commercials, plus promos, it’ll be tough for anyone to get a word in edgewise.
That’s exactly the reason for the launch of a major research project to supplement the snippets of information the candidates divulge on the debate stage and on their brief appearances on cable news. The project will give voters what they’ve been clamoring for but that no one seems to provide: deep information about where each candidate stands on a host of issues important to the health of our democracy, along with a summary and grade for each candidate’s platform.
The ‘A’ candidates recognize that fixing democracy first, ending corruption, and reducing the massive influence of lobbyists, special interests, and wealthy donors is a critical first step to actually accomplishing anything they want to accomplish. Want to pass common-sense gun control? History shows you can’t do it without taking on the structural issues that give the NRA such outsize influence. Interested in meaningful legislation on climate change, student debt, or healthcare? That’s great — but first, you’ll need to get Congress to recognize that they are primarily responsible for everyday citizens, not their largest campaign backers and supportive Super PACs.
At this early stage, a few candidates are starting to understand this reality. Andrew Yang gets an A-plus because he’s said that “the first thing he’ll do is put democracy back in the hands of the American people.” Kirsten Gillibrand gets the same top marks because she has introduced game-changing legislation providing for the public funding of elections and promises to put that reform at the top of her agenda. Several others, like Beto O’Rourke, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, and Michael Bennet, are also realizing that they need to strengthen our democracy first, or else their remaining policy goals will all fall by the wayside.
Equally revealing are the group of candidates who have yet to grasp the importance of these sets of issues. Kamala Harris, for instance, has supported automatic voter registration but has yet to articulate stances on critical issues like public financing of elections and ending gerrymandering. Meanwhile, Joe Biden has expressed support for overturning Citizens United but his platform is notably vague on both how important these issues are and what the specifics of any his plans will be.
And then there’s Donald Trump. What grade to give him? On the one hand, his anti-corruption rhetoric is powerful. Remember how he promised to drain the swamp, and ridiculed his Republican opponents for being beholden to wealthy donors? He’s right: the swamp should be drained, and politicians are too beholden to special interests. But, so far in Trump’s first term, he has not only done nothing to reform the very system he attacked, but he has aggressively made it worse by opposing any meaningful reform, staffing his administration with the very same group of swamp-dwelling lobbyists, and caving to the pressures of his most influential donors. Overall, we give him an F.
For Biden, Harris, and even Trump, there is always room to improve. These grades are just the start, not the finish. We’ll be watching between now and November 2020. We hope you’ll go beyond the ten minutes you’ll hear in the debates and follow along.
Jason Harrow is Equal Citizens Executive Director and Chief Counsel.