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The Presidential Debate Missed the Biggest Issue

Getting money out of politics gets bipartisan support, so why not go for a mandate?

Democracy Spring protesters marched on the US Capitol to protest big money in politics and voting rights restrictions. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Despite liberals’ best efforts at self-reassurance and Donald Trump’s poor performance in the first debate, his anti-establishment messaging still holds great appeal for a large portion of our electorate.

This is hardly news, but what’s the essential lesson for all of us?

That most Americans feel cut out. They’re angry that they have no real voice in our democracy — because they don’t: Political scientists have found it’s even more true than most of us would guess. A groundbreaking 2014 study covering the ’80s and ’90s by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page shows that most Americans have “near-zero” influence on public policy, while that of elite interests is considerable. Of course it’s only gotten worse since.

Monday’s debate moderator, Lester Holt, failed to ask either candidate about money in politics, or even reference it.

The failure to address this reality hurts Clinton and helps Trump. While she has not been a career politician, as Trump repeatedly suggests, she has been a longtime “insider.” So Trump’s attacks linking Clinton with virtually every ill-conceived policy of the past decades resonates — valid or not.

Is Clinton therefore locked in this elite-at-the-expense-of-ordinary-Americans status?

Watching the first debate, it sure seems that way. Yes, she embraced cutting-edge progressive family-friendly policies, but she made little effort to dissociate herself from the reviled political class in the pocket of big money.

This is strange, because Clinton has done something no other recent president or presidential candidate has — something that perfectly counters Trump’s anti-establishment masquerading: She has taken a clear, strong stance in favor of key democracy reforms that together could actually enhance the power of struggling Americans.

She has endorsed publicly financing congressional elections and restoring the Voting Rights Act, and has promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who will allow Congress to regulate money in politics and more. Her platform is so strong that the democracy reform group Every Voice (formerly Public Campaign) made Clinton its first-ever presidential endorsement in its nearly 20-year history.

Moreover, her party’s official platform includes one of the strongest sets of democracy reforms in its history.

So why not talk about it? No single issue attracts larger bipartisan consensus than getting big money out of politics. A remarkable 85 percent of Americans want fundamental change in the way we fund our elections. And more to the point: What red-blooded American would admit that he or she doesn’t believe that everyone should have an equal say in our democracy?

The only way to accomplish this, not to mention a host of other social and political changes many Americans endorse, is to radically reduce the role of money in politics.

Trump claims to be an outsider, and thus the best fixer-of-our-broken-system. Yet as Clinton (and others) noted, the Republican nominee’s tax plan skews heavily toward the already-rich. But in the debate, she missed an opportunity to point out it also would inevitably give the rich even more influence in politics.

By more enthusiastically donning the mantle of fighter-for-democracy, Clinton could win over more of the alienated voters who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic nomination fight, precisely because he made ending the “rigged system” that’s crushing so many of us a top priority.

The more Clinton embraces a pro-democracy platform now, the greater the post-election mandate for the already burgeoning Democracy Movement — a movement of campaign finance reformers, voting rights activists, anti-gerrymandering citizens, constitutional amendment advocates and much more. (Skeptical that such a movement is actually forming? See the breadth of one part of it in our Field Guide to the Democracy Movement).

So here is our humble advice to the Clinton strategy team: Showcase your already-endorsed proposals to empower ordinary Americans in our political process. They’re not pie-in-the-sky. More than enough evidence shows that they can work — so why hesitate?

The road to democracy reform could also lead to the White House.

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