Buttigieg was right about Big Money in politics before he was wrong about it
The most bizarre moment of last week’s presidential debate was small-liberal-college town Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s impassioned plea for Big Money in politics, flying in the face of the Democratic Party’s gradual evolution away from millionaires and billionaires and toward small-dollar grassroots donors enabled by ActBlue and fueled by people like you.
Bernie Sanders built his small-dollar machine in 2016, a huge advantage this cycle. Elizabeth Warren made the decision to forgo those millionaires and billionaires in order to directly campaign and speak to base voters. It was a risky move, and I remember being asked if it was a smart one. My response at the time? “Maybe not, but if she can’t fund her campaign via small-dollar donors, she has no business running.” You want to know what happened to Kamala Harris after her big splashy entrance? She disappeared into wine caves begging those millionaires and billionaires for money. I wish she had made a play for a grassroots-funded campaign. It couldn’t have gone any worse than what ended up happening to her campaign.
Small dollars can fund our presidential candidate. She or he will be able to raise $1 billion of necessary funds in those regular $20 increments. There is no need to sell ambassadorships or cabinet positions or executive orders or laws in order to fund our presidential campaign. Yet there is a whole machine demanding that our candidates do so—from the fundraisers, to the cash-hungry media consultants, to TV networks that depend on those political advertisements, to a punditry class that has a hard time accepting that sometimes, times change.
Meanwhile, those big-dollar donors aren’t in the habit of writing big checks for their health. They expect something in return. I’ve sat in those fundraisers (as an invitee, not a donor) and observed the dynamics. People push their pet causes, their pet issues, and I guarantee you they’re not the same as the 99% of voters not blessed with such wealth. How can they be? That’s not a knock on those donors, as they’re putting their money into the right team (as well as broader liberal causes such as Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, etc., etc.). But when a candidate spends the bulk of her or his time talking to people who don’t have to worry about making ends meet, it skews their perspective. Julián Castro got it right here:
Ã¢Â€ÂœWhen you have a candidate who flip-flops so fundamentally on important points of policy, it does raise the question of whether big money is influencing his decisions.Ã¢Â€Â Ã¢Â€Â” Julian Castro on Pete Buttigieg Ã°ÂŸÂŽÂ¯Ã°ÂŸÂŽÂ¯Ã°ÂŸÂŽÂ¯pic.twitter.com/Xzcu1NFlMP
— BoldProgressives.org (@BoldProgressive) December 23, 2019
And there’s no doubt Buttigieg has been all over the place on the issues, most famously on Medicare for All. But even here, there was a before and an after:
In 2010 during his race for state treasurer, Pete Buttigieg pledged that he would not accept money from Wall Street banks because Ã¢Â€Âœit creates a conflict of interest. It creates an appearance…like pay to play.Ã¢Â€Â pic.twitter.com/ToQvTkw3ML
— BoldProgressives.org (@BoldProgressive) December 22, 2019
Buttigieg is young, untested, and unprepared for a presidential campaign. HIs ideology is malleable, perhaps by the whims of the highest bidder. Buttigieg’s fundraisers certainly believe so, such as H.K Park, who wrote a fundraising pitch to a potential donor that read, “If you want to get on the campaign’s radar now before he is flooded with donations after winning Iowa and New Hampshire, you can use the link below for donations.” That prospective donor was so disturbed by the pay-to-play pitch that he leaked the email to Axios, asking, “What would this suggest about the way he’s going to interact with Silicon Valley if the implication is pay-for-play?”
The campaign, of course, denies writing that email. And of course they didn’t. That’s not the point. This was a very Giuliani-type situation, where the fundraiser admitted the truth. Usually, people are smarter about this stuff. You don’t put it in writing. You use euphemisms. Lots of winks and nods. No one says, “Give me money and you can be ambassador to Jamaica,” yet that happens all the time.
Donors expect that kind of access and influence. It’s part of the game.
Buttigieg clearly knew this, and acted on it, until it was no longer in his interest to do so. But for a candidate with no clear ideological core (it took him months to even put up the most basic issues page on his website, and he repeatedly has refused to lay out a specific agenda, even saying, “I think it can actually be a little bit dishonest to think you have it all figured out on day 1. I think anybody in this race is going to be a lot more specific or policy-oriented than the current president. But I don’t think we ought to have that all locked in on day 1.”
That’s a void waiting to be filled, and there are people willing to pay big money to fill it. That’s a fundamental problem, and the more our presidential (and, eventually, down-ballot) candidates can free themselves from that system, the better.