Big money in politics, the limits of voting rights and the way politicians get to pick their voters were among the topics almost entirely bypassed in the four previous presidential debates. But that changed Wednesday night, when the republic's broken aspects earned some significant attention.
The Democratic candidates were asked questions about problems with democracy for the first time, and at other points several of them volunteered their concerns about a governing system overdue for some big fixes.
The increased focus was a notable departure not only from the earlier debates but also from the talk on the trail. All 10 who debated in Atlanta are behind the consensus items on the agenda of democracy reformers, but since much of the campaign's oxygen comes from conflict, those proposals rarely get much air time. And they have so many other differences with President Trump that their discord over what about the system needs fixing rarely comes up.
At the moderators' behest, most of the talk on this score was about the influence of special interests and rich donors and the difficulties many have in gaining access to the ballot box. The first topic was top of mind because the day's star witness in the House's impeachment proceedings had been Gordon Sondland, the politically generous hotelier turned ambassador. And the second topic was particularly resonant in Georgia, where allegations of multifaceted voter suppression are at the heart of why Democrats say their rise is being stifled.
Early in the evening, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called out Washington's pay-to-play politics, promising as president she would break with two centuries of precedent and not reward big donors with plum diplomatic postings.
"How did Ambassador Sondland get there? You know, this is not a man who had any qualifications, except one: He wrote a check for a million dollars," Warren said during the debate. "And that tells us about what's happening in Washington, the corruption, how money buys its way into Washington."
On the issue of expanding access to the ballot box, there is hardly any variation among the 10 candidates — all of whom were pressed to focus on the issue while in Georgia by Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who lost her bid for governor last year amid accusations of widespread efforts to hold down turnout among black voters.
Everyone in the field agrees that the voting process needs to be more accessible, and they are largely aligned about the ways to do that. So instead the candidates' responses focused more on how their experience would lend itself to success in implementing these voting expansions.
Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota touted her record in the Senate, gathering bipartisan support for an array of legislation being promoted by "good government" advocacy groups, as proof that she is best prepared and most committed to carry out the democracy reform agenda from the White House.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., retorted that "Washington experience isn't the only experience that matters." Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii quickly noted her bill to mandate paper ballots before pivoting to national security and her military background.
The other standout moment for democracy reform concerned big money's influences in elections. Billionaire Tom Steyer was asked to respond to critics who see him as a hypocrite for denouncing special interests when he himself has spent more than $300 million on elections.
"What I've done is to try to push power down to the America people, to take power away from the corporations who've bought our government," he replied. He added that he would demand term limits on members of Congress to allow for "new and different people" to be in charge.
Klobuchar, in response, pledged to push for a constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in favor of unlimited corporate political spending to "stop this dark money and outside money from coming into our politics."
She also emphasized that more than money-in-politics reform is needed. She would also implement a system to automatically register people when they turn 18 as part of a comprehensive legislative package she rolled out this week.
"If we had a system like this, and we did something about gerrymandering, and we stopped the voting purges, and we did something significant about making sure we don't have money in politics from the outside, Stacey Abrams would be governor of this state right now," Klobuchar said.
Sen. Corey Booker of New Jersey volunteerd that voter suppression in Georgia has prevented an array of progressive legislation from getting enacted, starting with protection of abortion rights.
Buttigieg, the only one of the top-polling candidates to weigh in significantly on the fix-the-system agenda, unspooled a long riff on what he wants:
"We know that with the White House in the right hands we can make, for example, Election Day a federal holiday. We can use carrots and sticks to induce states to do the right thing with automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, making it easier for people to vote and in particular recognizing that we cannot allow the kind of racially motivated or partisan voter suppression or gerrymandering that often dictates the outcome of elections before the voting even begins, he said.
"Right now we have politicians picking out their voters rather than the other way around. That compounding with what is being done to restrict the right to vote means that our democracy is not worthy of the name."
A sigh of belated relief could be heard online from democracy reform advocates.
"Glad voting rights finally came up after 32 debates in 2020 & 2016," Ari Berman, the author of two books about voting rights, tweeted. "It should be one of the first things discussed at every debate."
"Finally, a question about voting rights in a Democratic debate," was the echo from the Campaign Legal Center, which is helping to press several voting rights and campaign finance lawsuits. "Appropriate for an event in Georgia, where hundreds of thousands are in danger of being removed from voter rolls in an aggressive purge."Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice, one of the most prominent progessive advocates for changing the rules of governance, noted that almost all the ideas that got mentioned on the debate stage are contained in HR 1, the comprehensive package passed by the Democratic House but buried in the GOP Senate. "The bill is ready to go. We just need the political will. This Democratic debate is a great step in that direction."
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