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Op-Ed | InsideSources | January 27, 2020

The Issue Dividing Democratic Candidates Is Hidden in Plain Sight

2020 Election/TransitionCampaign Finance

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Takes came in hot and heavy last weekend after the New York Times editorial board endorsed both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar for the Democratic presidential nomination, mercifully ending the paper’s self-aggrandizing pseudo-event widely compared to … that’s right … “The Apprentice.”

The Times split its endorsement due to the intra-Democratic cleave between what it termed a “radical” path represented by Warren and a “pragmatic” path represented by Klobuchar.

“Progressive” and “centrist” might be more accurate, less charged terms, especially given how unlikely it is that any president will be able to move any part of their agenda through a Senate with at least 41 Republicans. Therefore, as the editorial references, executive branch policymaking will be indispensable to any Democrat achieving their goals.

But on that front, there’s a critical distinction between Warren and Klobuchar — and for that matter, between the wing of the party represented by Warren and Bernie Sanders and every other candidate in the field. That’s because of the clearest delineation between these two camps: which candidates depend on big money donors (or are themselves big money donors, like Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg), and which do not.

Not once in its endorsement did the Times mention one of Klobuchar’s most notable campaign actions over the last few weeks — the release of her list of bundlers, the supporters who’ve brought at least $25,000 into the campaign through their contributions and personal networks. Bundlers are elite liaisons to the finance, tech, law and influence industries. Many receive ambassadorships or other powerful political appointments, or at least, have a seat at the table where these decisions are made.

Either way, candidates with bundlers usually end up dependent on their money to keep a national campaign alive, which means bundlers can easily extract concessions and reforge a candidate’s policies in their image.

Warren and Sanders, however, are not dependent at all on their bundlers: they don’t have any. Both have eschewed traditional high-dollar fundraisers and rely instead on a broad army of small-dollar donations. Not incidentally, both have outraised the other frontrunners. They’ve proven that the old big-money model simply isn’t necessary anymore, and that a campaign truly driven by ideas that excite the public can succeed on its own merits.

Compare that to Klobuchar. Despite the Times dubbing her “a standard-bearer for the center,” she’s currently polling at 3 percent nationally. And to even achieve that much, she now owes favors to bundlers like Robert Schriesheim, a private equity pirate whose firm helped bankrupt Sears (and has ties to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin); Kathleen MacLennan, whose husband Dave runs agri-giant Cargill, dubbed “the worst company in the world” on climate and consumer health; Brad Karp, head of the corporate law firm (Paul Weiss) that defends ExxonMobil’s climate crimes and Citigroup’s rampant fraud (Karp is notably hedging his bets by also bundling for Biden); and Maison Miscavage, a principal at the corporate tax avoidance powerhouse Ernst & Young.

The New York Times ought to acknowledge questions about whether these are the type of backers the Democratic base wants to see in a future president. As the Times pointed out, any one of the current candidates would be “the most progressive president in decades on issues like health care, the economy and government’s allocations of resources.”

But can Klobuchar credibly claim she’d follow through on those stances when the donors keeping her campaign alive run the very industries that ruined health care, the economy, and the government’s allocation of resources? How can Biden make such a claim when his own bundlers show (arguably) even worse actors, or Pete Buttigieg when his list is so embarrassing that he hid more than 20 of its names?

In a time when smart personnel appointments are one of the central ways presidents can enact their agendas, these centrists — excuse me, “pragmatic” candidates — knowingly shoot themselves in the foot by relying on a fundraising model where unelected donors expect political favors.

The point is as old as politics itself: If you want to know a candidate’s priorities, follow the money. The Times editorial board consists of institutionalists to the bitter end, of course, but in a time when no one has faith in institutions anymore, there’s nothing pragmatic about corrupting influences … and nothing radical about integrity.

2020 Election/TransitionCampaign Finance

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