Staking a presidential bid on battling big money in politics fails for Bullock
Steve Bullock, the only Democratic presidential candidate focused mainly on achieving a top goal of democracy reformers, ended his campaign on Monday.
When the governor of Montana entered the already crowded field in May, he vowed to make his bid for the White House about "one big idea" — ending the influence of big money in politics as a prerequisite for addressing the nation's other big problems, from health care coverage to climate change.
Six months later, his fundraising and statistically insignificant standing in the polls remained lackluster enough that he'd only been invited to one debate and had little prospect of being asked to another. When announcing the end of his campaign, Bullock acknowledged that "the concerns that propelled me to enter in the first place have not changed."
A handful of the remaining contenders have added other aspects of the democracy reform agenda to their own platforms, but none made it a central pillar of their campaigns the way Bullock did. And generally they talk about these issues only when asked, as happened when November's debate in Atlanta turned for a few minutes to the perception that access to the voting booth is too difficult for too many.
Although Bullock's small campaign coffers and minimal poll numbers kept him out of much of the campaign conversation, his singular focus brought at least some attention to the cause of bolstering the system of campaign finance regulation. He often touted the "dark money" law he helped enact in Montana — requiring politically active nonprofits to register with the state and disclose their campaign spending — as evidence he could bring reform to Washington.
"I entered this race as a voice to win back the places we lost, bridge divides and rid our system of the corrupting influence of dark money," Bullock said Monday, but it was clear he would never be able to sell his message nationally because he would never "break through to the top tier of this still-crowded field of candidates."
While multiple polls have shown the public believes the political system is broken, Bullock's approach didn't come close to breaking through. He never scored above 1 percent in the dozens of polls used to determine who makes the debate stage.
Bullock also struggled to raise the money needed to keep his campaign alive. As of the end of September he had only raised $4.4 million — just one-seventeenth of what's been collected by the rival who's raised the most, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The governor made a few headlines in September when he said he wanted to be the only candidate this year — and one of only a handful in the past two decades — to accept public matching funds in return for limiting campaign spending. But because the Federal Election Commission is effectively shuttered, he could not get permission to access that funding.
Of those still in the running, many have indicated support for campaign finance changes, but only a few have made a point to mention it in a prominent venue like a debate stage.
Of the candidates in the top tier, Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are relatively regular advocates for enhancing voting rights, ending partisan gerrymandering and curbing big money influences. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the clear frontrunner in national polls, has essentially never highlighted his views on the issues in a way that's drawn attention.
Warren has taken her stances a step further than her competitors by releasing detailed plans to address reform issues. Her anti-corruption plan, published in September, includes restrictions on lobbying activity and increased disclosure requirements. Some of what Warren proposed overlaps with the comprehensive political process overhaul measure, HR 1, which the House passed in March.
As the sole House member still running for president, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is the only candidate who has voted for that measure. But all six Senators in the race have co-sponsored the companion bill that's stuck in the Republican Senate.
In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.