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Blog Post | May 12, 2020

A VP Harris Must Make Clear Commitments To Build Trust

2020 Election/TransitionCampaign Finance

Last week, I wrote in The American Prospect  about Cynthia Hogan, Apple’s top lobbying official (if not, herself, technically a lobbyist) who sits on Joe Biden’s vice presidential selection committee. Thanks to our new Presidential Power Map tool, I was also able to examine each of the major contenders for vice president who ran campaigns themselves last year (Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar). Based on that data, Harris seems like the most likely VP of choice for the tech industry.

That’s probably unsurprising: Harris is California’s junior senator and developed strong relationships in Silicon Valley early in her political career. Yet our Power Map shows that that was just one piece of Harris’ high-dollar fundraising operation in 2019. Now, especially as Biden pivots to consolidating populist votes for the general election, Harris should consider distancing herself from those corporate forces through clear commitments to wielding executive authority against bad actors and for the common good. Here are a few suggestions.

Swear off the McKinsey-fication of the executive branch. A sizable portion of Harris’ supporters in our Presidential Power Map work for business consulting firms like McKinsey & Company or Ernst & Young. For decades, these self-described gurus have pushed governments to think of and conduct themselves more like businesses, which often means imposing austerity or slashing top tax rates in the name of “citizen value.” 

The consultant class has a considerable cast of revolving-door centrist Democrats, including former Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients (whose job was to basically be a management consultant for the White House) and former Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Diana Farrell (who, while developing the white paper that would lead to the Dodd-Frank Act, said “we’re unlikely to ever come back to or want to come back to” a time before Too Big To Fail banks.) If Harris affirmatively promised that management consulting firms will not staff a Biden-Harris executive branch, it could build necessary trust. 

Close the bundler-to-ambassador revolving door. Several of Harris’ bundlers once bundled for then-candidate Barack Obama, including James Costos and Alexa Wesner. Costos and Wesner were rewarded for their loyalty with plum ambassadorships — Costos went to Spain and Andorra, while Wesner served in Austria. Before becoming the appointed representatives of the United States and among the most important members of the diplomatic corps, Costos was an HBO executive and Wesner ran a recruiting company. Not exactly students of statecraft, these two. 

As my colleague Timi Iwayemi wrote, there’s a long and frustrating history of candidates’ financial backers being rewarded with sexy ambassadorships. And in the Trump era, we should all be intimately familiar with the consequences of this. As Timi points out, Gordon Sondland “had limited diplomatic experience before his appointment, but he had the privilege of donating $1 million to President Trump’s inaugural committee.” Committing not to appoint any of her own or Biden’s bundlers to ambassadorships is a low bar ethics pledge Harris could make. More meaningful pledges would include a ban on bundlers receiving political appointments, period, as well as promising to appoint Securities and Exchange Commissioners who will call for rules requiring companies to disclose their political spending to shareholders, as former SEC Commissioner Rob Jackson has called for. Harris might also take the lead on Biden’s proposal to ban private money in elections entirely via constitutional amendment.

Promise to spearhead an aggressive antitrust regime. There’s no getting around the fact that Big Tech and BigLaw are the two largest portions of Harris’ sectoral support on the Power Map. That means her willingness to take on Facebook, Google and the like — not to mention their scores of lawyers and lobbyists — will be a key litmus test for Harris securing any trust with economic populists. The thing is, there’s already a clear policy option for her to signal that she deserves populists’ respect: promise to push for aggressive antitrust investigations against Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon.

Harris demurred on the 2019 campaign trail when asked about the ongoing antitrust investigations into these four companies, saying it should ultimately be up to the Attorney General and Federal Trade Commission to make any major decisions. Well, as vice president (not to mention attorney general, another job for which Harris has been considered in the past), she would be a superior to the Department of Justice’s attorneys and a major influence over the FTC’s team. If the ball lands in Harris’ court, how will she respond? Swearing to see the investigations through and break up Big Tech (if that’s what the best evidence shows is appropriate) would go a long way toward the public seeing Harris as the fearless attorney “For The People” that her messaging team portrays.

These ideas are necessary, although not necessarily sufficient on their own, to assuage populist voters’ concerns about Harris. For those voters to see Harris as more than just another elite, she will need to publicly demonstrate that she wants a change to the way money and power flow in our politics. 

2020 Election/TransitionCampaign Finance

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