Which is a good thing. But the episode shows the difficulty some of the Democratic candidates for president are going have in the 2020 campaign. The expectations of Democratic primary voters have changed, and the candidates may struggle to catch up. For some of them, their histories — and the politics of their home states — could create some serious problems.
For the moment, I’m not going to render a judgment on whether Cory Booker is a diabolical corporate shill, though there are certainly some people on the left who believe that to be the case. But here’s his problem when it comes to the pharmaceutical industry: He’s from New Jersey, where dozens of drug companies, including giants such as Merck and Johnson & Johnson, have their headquarters. It’s a huge industry in the state. So, yeah, Booker has taken money from them in the past, though according to the Center for Responsive Politics, pharma ranks only 12th on the list of industries and professions from which he has received donations.
Every industry that has a strong presence in a state gives contributions to all the key politicians in that state, no matter which party they come from. Whether it’s insurance in Connecticut, coal in West Virginia, cars in Michigan or casinos in Nevada, they want to make sure that when they need favors or just need to have their concerns heard, they have as many friendly ears as possible. There’s a sinister interpretation of that process and a more benign one, which says that if you’re a senator and you know that half a million of your constituents work in ball bearings, you’re not going to do anything to hurt the position of the ball bearing industry because that’s bad for the people you represent. That’ll be true whether Ball Bearings for America PAC gave you $10,000 in your last campaign or not.
Nevertheless, it’s no longer good enough for Democrats with aspirations to higher office to say, “Hey, this industry is important to my state,” particularly if the industry in question doesn’t always seem to be doing what’s in the best interest of the country or the world as a whole. Just as Democratic voters have moved left on issues such as immigration and health care, they have higher expectations for what we might call campaign finance purity. (Fortunately for Republicans, this isn’t something they ever have to worry about: They enthusiastically scoop up all the corporate money they can and do corporations' bidding whenever they can, and no one expect anything different.)
In 2016, Hillary Clinton got into some trouble with primary voters over well-paid speeches she had given to Wall Street firms, both because it was direct income (which presumably could have a bigger influence than a campaign contribution) and also because she was running against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose entire campaign was built on the idea that “the millionaires and billionaires” are the root of all our problems. It didn’t stop her from winning the nomination, though the controversy reinforced the idea, accurate or not, that she was part of a corrupt establishment that didn’t have the interests of the common people at heart.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and it’s now expected that any Democrat running for president will refuse to accept donations from corporate PACs. Not only has Booker made that pledge, but so have Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who may have the biggest problem of all.
Gillibrand, you see, is from New York, where one industry towers above all others: Wall Street. Like many New York politicians, she has gotten lots of contributions from people in the finance industry (and as it happens, Booker has also gotten a lot more money from Wall Street than from Big Pharma — over $2 million in his 2014 Senate race). Gillibrand got a lot of heat for a recent CNBC report that she was calling around to Wall Street executives to see if they’d support a presidential run. Which again, you can interpret in a more sinister way — she’s already sold out to them and would do Wall Street’s bidding as president — or in a more benign way — she’s calling up all her old donors to see if they’ll open up their checkbooks again, because that’s what presidential candidates have to do.
Even a campaign finance purist will have to ask themselves how they feel about personal donations as opposed to PAC or super PAC donations, since that’s likely to come up in 2020. Beto O’Rourke, who took no PAC money for his Senate race last year and raised a stunning $79 million in mostly small contributions, got criticized by some on the left for taking lots of money from people in the oil and gas industry. His supporters countered that he’s from Texas and there are thousands of Texan liberals who just happen to work for an oil company, but that doesn’t mean O’Rourke is beholden to Exxon; then everyone yelled at everyone else on Twitter.
That’s a preview of what we’re going to see in 2020: a lot of sniping back and forth about which candidates are the most bought and why. But there’s no perfect answer to how one should judge those individual contributions, since a donation “from” a corporation could be (and often is) to influence policy, but it could also be just because someone who works there likes the candidate. For instance, people in the electronics manufacturing and equipment industry gave Sanders $1.9 million in 2016. Does that mean Bernie is in the pocket of Big Transistor? Probably not.
If you’re trying to figure all this out, the best answer is to look at both the contributions candidates have gotten and the policies they’ve proposed in the past and are proposing now. The contributions can point you in the right direction, but they’re only part of the story. We need to know who has paid candidates, but also what candidates are planning to do. And you might also keep in mind that while there are plenty of politicians who really are corporate shills, nobody’s perfect.