Yesterday your humble blogger noted a dispiriting disconnect about this cycle. Given a confluence of factors — billionaire sugar daddies sponsoring GOP candidates; campaign operations housed in friendly Super PACs; outside groups readying enormous expenditures; media scrutiny of Clinton Foundation donations — you’d think the time would be ripe to make big money in politics a major issue. Yet new polling suggests voters are as apathetic about the issue as ever, making the cause seem hopeless.
But Dem Rep. John Sarbanes, a longtime campaign finance reformer, insists it is anything but hopeless. In an interview today, he laid out how he thinks Democrats can make the issue matter to voters.
Sarbanes — who has long championed reform that would give candidates who restrict the size of their donations public matching funds, boosting the influence of small donors — told me that the key to making the issue matter to voters is, above all, not to discuss it in isolation. Sarbanes told me:
“It is hard sometimes as a stand-alone issue. But the way you can motivate people around this is, you go to an issue people care about — the environment, food safety, jobs and infrastructure — and you lead them from there to the fact that money is standing in the way of progress on that issue.
“It’s about how you describe that connection to people. Once you do that, they will carry it with them. You’ve built a narrative around something they care very, very deeply about. We just have to get better in our messaging and in making that connection for people.”
This week’s New York Times/CBS News poll found that this issue should be a fertile one for Democrats. It showed huge majorities across party lines think money exerts too much influence over the process, and that this disparity benefits the rich. A majority does not believe political donations should be protected as free speech. And yet, the poll also found that fewer than one percent name money in politics as their top issue, and Democrats have previously acknowledged the difficulties in making the issue matter.
But as Ed Kilgore notes, there’s no need to give up and forever consign campaign finance to the realm of boring process issues that only matter to “snooty wine-track good government” voters. Dem consultant Stan Greenberg has long believed it can be used to appeal to blue collar whites who might be open to the Democratic agenda, but need to hear Dems speak to their belief that government is no longer capable of solving their problems. Greenberg says that blue collar white voters
are open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda — to more benefits for child care and higher education, to tax hikes on the wealthy, to investment in infrastructure spending, and to economic policies that lead employers to boost salaries for middle- and working-class Americans, especially women. Yet they are only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed. Championing reform of government and the political process is the price of admission with these voters. These white working-class and downscale voters are acutely conscious of the growing role of big money in politics and of a government that works for the 1 percent, not them.
Sarbanes likens this to “doing a sound check on a microphone.” He tells me:
“If I stand in front of an audience of randomly selected Americans, I know that 95 percent of them sitting out there think that Washington is bought and sold by big interests and that their voice is inconsequential. So I can go right to talking about the minimum wage, job creation, and infrastructure, knowing that they’re saying, ‘You can’t get any of it done, because the system is rigged.’
“Or I can start by tapping on the microphone, and saying: ‘I know that 95 percent of people in this room think government is bought and sold by big money special interests. And you’re right.’ All of a sudden they wake up and say, ‘maybe this guy actually knows how we feel and has something to say to me’.”
One hopes Sarbanes and Greenberg are right! Still, even if they are, some Dems worry Hillary Clinton — who has pledged to fight to get “dark money” out of politics — might not be an ideal messenger for the issue, given her reliance on big Wall Street donors, among other things. Sarbanes responds:
“It’s not as good a situation as coming in with absolutely clean hands. But Americans are pretty sophisticated about this stuff. I don’t think they’re going to tag you as a hypocrite because you want to make things better. The average person is quite capable of digesting a message that says, ‘we need to fix this current system, which is so disrespectful of your voice. Here’s how we can do it. In the meantime I’ve got to live in a world where the rules are what they are.'”
Of course, we don’t know what Clinton will propose yet on this issue. We don’t even know whether she’ll talk about big money in politics all that much. But if she does, keep an eye (ear?) out for some of the above frames.