Elizabeth Warren's Glass House and the Absurd Debate about Campaign Fundraising



 At Thursday’s Democratic debate, perhaps the most fiery exchange occurred between Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg on the issue of how to finance a campaign.

Now, I stated rather clearly my opinion that on this debate I side with Mayor Buttigieg. He is right that we are in a fight for our lives, that Democrats can ill afford to turn away support or resources against what is already a $300 million machine on the other side, and the insinuation that candidates for office are never able to say no to their donors is preposterous.

Buttigieg landed his strongest blow of the debate when he pointed out that Warren was herself a wealthy multimillionaire, and no one would suggest that a candidate for political office that she donates to is by definition corrupt. It was an effective counterpunch to Warren’s core proposition that campaign contributions from rich people and high-dollar fundraisers are inherently corrupting. She has called them bribes.

As we have pointed out on TPV (and as Andrew Yang reiterated in Thursday’s debate), being fueled by “individual donors” only is nothing to write home about, because the individual donor universe itself is very small, heavily over-represents men and white women, and systematically disadvantages candidates who earn the highest amount of support from people of color.

But as it turns out, Warren’s position wasn’t untenable only because she is wealthy and her argument, taken to an extreme would make all of the campaign contributions ever given by her corrupt bribes (her word). Her argument wasn’t unreasonable only because she and Bernie Sanders are advancing an argument that would cause Democrats to swear of significant vital resources at the exact moment in history we need it most. Warren’s point isn’t shaky only because the demographics of individual “small” donors aren’t exactly the face of America.

Elizabeth Warren, it is now clear, has been throwing stones from inside a glass house.

Warren has run for office twice before: as a candidate for senator from Massachusetts in 2012 and 2018. AP broke the news that in both of those campaigns, Warren held lavish fundraisers at posh venues, complete with expensive wine, photos and time with the candidate (something she now calls “selling” time) for top donors and bundlers, and commemorative gold and silver memorabilia for the creme de la creme of individual fundraisers. Those who raised more than $50,000 for her Senate campaign were knighted with an engraved gold pin in addition to being able to have the candidate’s ‘intent’ attention and the finest wine.

 

Some invites to give big to Elizabeth Warren before she found Berniestan

She held fundraisers with Hollywood bigwigs and Wall Street legends, and even a current Buttigieg bundler. To this day, wealthy progressives are raising and bundling money for Warren, but instead of using a physical venue, they are using an electronic one (online fundraising pages).

In other words, Warren has done the very things in the exact same way in order to get elected to the public office of trust she currently holds that she now wants to browbeat other candidates for engaging in. Buttigieg’s question seems even more relevant now: does Warren believe her tenure in the Senate has been corrupted by the influence of big money? Or does she simply believe that she alone is gifted with the superhuman capacity to resist the donor class even when they donate to her?

Some have given Warren credit for changing her position for her presidential run, because, they argue, it proves Warren is able to have a change of heart. But this was a political calculation - one, like her decision to anchor her health care plan with that of Sanders’s, turned out to be a miscalculation. It was most definitely not a change of heart or a moral epiphany.

How can one know?

A moral epiphany or a true change of heart requires that the new outlook become the prism with which one judges her own past actions. A thief who has a change of heart and comes to see theft as a moral wrong has only had a true change of heart if they acknowledge the wrongs of their past and makes restitution. If a parent who has rejected a gay or transgender child has a moral epiphany, they attempt to rectify past by withdrawing their previous words, by attempting to give their child what they robbed them of before.

In other words, any true moral epiphany has a restorative, rectification component, not simply a forward-looking one.

What would be such a step for an elected official who has, as Warren and her supporters claim, a moral epiphany - a change of heart - and truly feels that contributions collected from rich donors in big fundraisers really are, as Warren says she feels about them, bribes? What would be the restorative, rectifying step for an elected official who, by their own present frame of argument, was elected to two Senate terms with the help of bribes?

Simple: resign the office gained by campaigns funded with those bribes. Arguing that gaining the office of the presidency with a campaign partially funded by donations from rich people is illegitimate while continuing to hold a public office gained in similar manner would be… hypocritical.

Warren won’t, and it is absurd to expect her to.

It is absurd, because Warren can’t possibly believe the logical conclusion of what she’s selling. It is absurd, because the core campaign fundraising argument she and Sanders are advancing is absurd. It is absurd to argue that $2,800, the maximum allowable individual contribution to a candidate for president (or $5,600, if you combine the maximums for primary and general elections), is enough to purchase a candidate in a campaign that will likely require nearly $2 billion to be raised and spent by the candidates alone, and another $5 billion by outside groups. It is absurd to pretend that only a physical event with fingerfood and wine is bundling but the electronic version of the same is not. It is absurd to assert that Democrats should willingly forego resources legally available to them while the far right puts its unified power and unprecedented resources behind the re-election effort of a white nationalist.

Most importantly, it is absurd to judge candidates by how they are raising money instead of by the record on critical policy, viability, ability to advance a legislative agenda, and judgment questions. Campaign finance reform is an issue so crucial that it deserves a debate on its own merits, not one based on cheap, personal, petty shots on a Democratic debate stage. Democratic candidates should unite behind proposals and ideas to undo Citizens United and compulsory public financing of elections so that fundraising itself - whether it is by attending a dinner or by hiring a team of digital strategists to compose the most effective email, text and social media fundraising appeals - becomes a thing of the past and candidates rise and fall on the merits of their record and ideas.

But right now, in this election, we play the hand we are dealt. We play under the rules we have, not the rules we want. And under the rules we have, we take advantage of every resource legally available to defeat Trump, bar none.

Bar. None.