An internal fight is roiling the Democratic National Committee over whether to forgo corporate PAC money and make a big statement against money in politics as the 2020 presidential election starts to shift into high gear.
A small group of committee members thinks the DNC needs to show it’s serious about banning corporate PAC donations, taking the same step as many presidential candidates who have pledged to forgo corporate PAC money. Others in the DNC want every tool possible to defeat President Trump.
The DNC said it would only take money from corporations in line with the organization’s values in 2016. But its Resolutions Committee that met in Washington, DC, this week stopped short of banning for-profit corporate PAC donations altogether. The committee instead chose to study the issue over the next 18 months.
Some complained that amounts to doing nothing.
“We haven’t quite come to grips as a party with the fact that people do not trust us. As much as we think that they should, they simply don’t,” said Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party women’s caucus. Pelosi, who is the daughter of House speaker Nancy Pelosi, submitted the resolution to bring back the ban on corporate PAC money former President Barack Obama introduced as a candidate during the 2008 election.
Pelosi nodded to Democrats’ sweeping midterms win in 2018, which was carried by a number of candidates in Trump-friendly districts who ran their campaigns without corporate PAC money. A total of 52 Democratic House members are no longer taking corporate PAC contributions, including 35 new members who won in 2018.
The idea of getting money out of politics is extremely politically popular and transcends party lines, according to recent polling. As the DNC touts grassroots fundraising, Pelosi argued the organization needs to get serious about walking the walk before its first debates this summer.
“Y’all want to fight at the convention? You’re going to have one,” Pelosi said during the Resolutions Committee meeting. “We’re going to have a presidential debate, they’re going to ask what side we’re on. I just want us all to be ready. We’re going to need a very, very good PR strategy to explain why we made the decisions that we made.”
But other DNC members have been much more hesitant, up to the top ranks of the DNC.
“My No. 1 focus, frankly, is to get rid of Donald Trump,” said committee member Charlie King, the former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party. “Sometimes perfection is the enemy of the good.”
Money in politics is shaping up to be a big internal fight for Democrats
For all the controversy, the DNC only accepted $144,000 of corporate PAC money in 2018, out of $175 million in total fundraising. Pelosi and others in favor of a ban argued this small amount shows taking PAC money is more of a liability than it is a boon to national Democrats.
“The real question here [is] … what are we saying to the people across this country, whose votes we need, not only to eliminate this president but to adopt an agenda for change?” said Larry Cohen, a DNC member and board member of the Bernie Sanders-affiliated group Our Revolution.
But those concerns were overridden by another, bigger fear from others on the committee: that banning corporate PAC money could open up the possibility of Democrats losing to Trump in 2020.
“I don’t want to take the chance that we lose,” King said. “I don’t want to see Donald Trump for another four years where communities of color lose another four years. I don’t want to get it wrong.”
The ban would only apply to the DNC, not state parties, individual candidates, or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Pelosi told Vox she has been fighting DNC leadership for some time to instate a ban, and that she believes the issue has already been sufficiently studied by herself and others.
“As much as the leadership took the work I had done and said we already banned corporate PAC money, that is opposed in our platform — understand, that took me a year-and-a-half to do, and they fought me kicking and screaming every step along the way,” Pelosi said. “For them to announce it in their resolution today, to take credit for it — understand, it was not a change they wanted. It was a change that was very, very hard-fought.”
The DNC is talking about how money in politics is bad — while continuing to take it
Despite being the party that rails against corporate money influencing politics, the DNC is still taking it. For years, Democrats have positioned themselves as the morally superior to Republicans when it comes to money in politics. But the money is still flowing.
The DNC quietly did away with Obama’s corporate PAC donations ban in 2016, in the middle of a presidential primary where the corrupting influence of politics became a major campaign issue.
And corporate influence could be seen all over the 2016 DNC convention in Philadelphia; even flags on light posts featured logos of corporate sponsors. Corporations hosted numerous events and parties during the convention that politicians and their staff attended, getting facetime with lobbyists — per an account from former Vox reporter Jeff Stein.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders railed on the outsized role corporations and millionaires and billionaires had in America’s politics when running against Hillary Clinton.
The fact that more Democrats running for president and Congress have taken the no corporate PAC pledge is a sign the party is trending in Sanders’s direction on this issue. House Democrats also rolled out a sweeping anti-corruption bill called HR 1 as their first bill of the year.
Many in the party will argue Democrats should use every resource they can get to defeat Trump — even as many candidates themselves forgo corporate PAC money. But others are decrying it as hypocritical, asking the DNC to hold itself to a higher standard and think about the message it sends to voters.