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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | October 3, 2019

The DNC’s Debate Gambit Prevents Donor Accountability

2020 Election/TransitionCampaign Finance

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Late last week, the Democratic National Committee announced that it would hold only one October debate (on the 15th, rather than the 15th and 16th), packing the 12 qualifying candidates onto a single stage. As others have highlighted, the overcrowding will likely mean even less substance and more quibbling. There is, however, another important and overlooked consequence of the DNC’s decision: The single debate will slip in hours before the Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) third-quarter fundraising filing deadline, delivering an undeserved blessing to candidates who don’t wish to answer questions about their unsavory fundraising ties.

There are many reasons to loathe the Democratic primary debates. Stages packed with ten (or more) candidates are inevitably chaotic. Candidates and moderators dedicate more time to backbiting theatrics than to policy substance. Network news anchors launch questions that are indistinguishable from bad-faith Republican talking points. And, of course, each debate goes over essentially the same subject matter. We have all heard substantially the same repetition of GOP fearmongering over Medicare for All at least four times. Meanwhile, candidates have not once, for example, debated their diverse array of housing policy proposals.

More fundamentally, the debates focus on candidates’ legislative proposals, despite the fact that passage of bills depends on many factors outside of a president’s control (the biggest being the branch of government that votes on and passes laws, which is not the executive). We would appreciate, instead, a focus on how the candidates would run the executive branch, along the lines of what is laid out in the Day One Agenda. Moderators should ask candidates about the type of people they would appoint to political roles throughout the executive branch and the goals those appointees would be expected to achieve.

In less-crowded debates, we might begin to see more clues about how they might employ these levers of power. Even with a roomier debate stage, however, time spent on executive power is likely to be limited. These issues are largely absent from the presidential campaign discourse as a whole (“The Day One Agenda” series is a notable exception to this rule), making their exclusion from debates unsurprising, if still disappointing.

In contrast, candidates’ fundraising strategies are an inescapable topic of 2020 press. That makes it all the more puzzling that questions about donors never feature in the debates. The closest we have come was in early September at CNN’s climate town hall. In the hours before the event, CNBC reported that former Vice President Joe Biden planned to attend a fundraiser co-hosted by the co-founder of a natural gas company the day after proposing climate change action. That prompted a question at the town hall and a great deal of subsequent publicity, despite the lower viewership for town halls than DNC-sponsored debates.

Until last week, it seemed like the conditions for a more consequential debate about donors were in place. The second night of debates was set for the day after the FEC third-quarter filing deadline. In other words, it would occur at the end of a day filled to the brim with campaign finance revelations. Of course, a lucky six candidates would also have escaped the shadow of their unpalatable fundraising ties by debating the night of the fundraising deadline. That wouldn’t have been ideal, but certainly better than nothing.

Instead, however, all 12 candidates will face off just hours before their detailed fundraising reports become available to the public. Sadly, without the pressures of breaking fundraising news, we can likely expect more of the same: moderators failing to challenge candidates to account for their reliance on the ultra-wealthy and well-connected. This detracts significantly from the debate’s value.

Knowing where candidates get their money helps voters to assess the credibility of their policy promises. This is particularly true in a crowded field where voters need data points to distinguish between abundant choices. When considering two candidates who promise to crack down on Wall Street, it is relevant to know if one has raked in hundreds of thousands in campaign dollars from financial-industry donors.

Many of these people may be given a seat in the next president’s administration, from which they will be able to influence policy directly. If the past is any indication, these donors-turned-political appointees are a disaster for bold executive action in the public interest. In the absence of a robust debate over executive power, this proxy is perhaps the most useful indication of how a future president would use their office.

Consider, for example, the private equity titans donating to (and likely fundraising for) many of the candidates. You might know about private equity’s role destroying companies like Toys ‘R’ Us, but they might also be behind your rising rents, predatory student loans, surprise medical bills, Amazon deforestation, and much more. This diversity of nefarious activities means that private equity figures ought to have no place in a future president’s administration.

Unfortunately, we know that some of these donors were eyeing positions in a potential Hillary Clinton administration and are likely angling for appointments again. For that reason, a candidate’s response to questions about their private equity ties would help make clear how committed they are to actually achieving the vision they’ve laid out for—to name just a few areas—labor, housing, education, health, and climate policy.

Of course, it’s not just private equity that you have to worry about. Donors from the tech industry should also set off alarm bells, or asset managers like BlackRock, or telecom executives. The list goes on and on.

The DNC’s decision makes it less likely that these shadowy ties will see the light of day at the next debate, but not impossible. Moderators can still produce a debate that actually adds some value. That would mean asking candidates, for example, whether their high-dollar donors and fundraisers will have a place in their administration. We’re not holding our breath.

Eleanor Eagan is a Research Assistant at the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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