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Money in politics threatens democracy -- and the GOP doesn't have an answer

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush duked it out this week over who's being bought and sold by whom, but they fell far short of offering any solutions to the problem.
A volunteer prepares a donation box before a campaign stop by Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Feb. 28, 2012, in Dalton, Ga. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)
A volunteer prepares a donation box before a campaign stop by Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Feb. 28, 2012, in Dalton, Ga. 

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush flung attacks at each other in this week’s presidential debate about who’s bought and sold by big donors, but they fell far short of offering solutions to the problem. Until they do, voter cynicism about our country’s political system will only deepen.

In the most heated exchange, debate moderator Jake Tapper asked Bush, "Mr. Trump has repeatedly said that the $100 million you’ve raised for your campaign makes you a puppet for your donors. Are you?" A battle between the two followed, in which they fought over who was above the influence of special interests and big donors. Ben Carson interjected to say he won't "lick the boots of billionaires."

"In last night’s primetime debate, no candidate said what he or she would do to address the broken system they like to criticize."'

It’s no surprise. Poll after poll shows a broad, bipartisan majority of the American people are angry about our broken system and want politicians who’ll fight against the status quo.

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll found that two-thirds of Americans think the country’s political system is dysfunctional, while a recent Bloomberg News/Des Moines Register poll of Iowa caucus-goers found that 91% of Republicans and 94% of Democrats are unsatisfied or “mad as hell” about money in politics.

In June, a New York Times/CBS poll found that 85% of Americans believe we need fundamental changes to our campaign finance system, while a poll from the Wall Street Journal and NBC found that money in politics is a top concern for voters ahead of 2016.

But in last night’s primetime debate, no candidate said what he or she would do to address the broken system they like to criticize, whether on the debate stage or on the campaign trail.

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If any of the candidates want to break through voter cynicism about politics, they have to offer bold solutions to the problem.

Recently, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton announced a detailed reform platform, announcing that, “our democracy should be about expanding the franchise, not charging an entrance fee.” With Clinton’s announcement, every major Democratic candidate including Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley has announced support for small-donor public financing, as well as efforts to overturn the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig is running on the sole platform of reforming the way our elections are financed.  

Clinton's plan calls for a small-donor matching fund program for congressional and presidential campaigns, increased transparency of political spending, and for a reversal of Citizens United. It’s a strong, bold plan and mirrors the “Fighting Big Money, Empowering People” agenda released in July and supported by more than a dozen democracy reform groups. 

Despite talking regularly about the problem of money’s influence in politics, few Republican presidential candidates have offered solutions beyond small steps that amount to a band-aid for a broken leg. 

Ted Cruz talks about breaking the “Washington cartel” of lobbyists and big donors, but his solution is to let lobbyists and big donors give as much as they want to candidates. Jeb Bush says he’ll “reform” Washington, but has only suggested minor changes to lobbying rules – and for Congress, not the White House. Scott Walker wants to “wreak havoc” on the nation’s capital, but has no plan to put everyday people ahead of big donors. Ben Carson won’t “lick the boots of billionaires” but has said he doesn’t have a plan to reform how elections are funded. And Donald Trump’s personal solution -- being a billionaire beholden to no one -- won’t do anything to address systemic challenges. 

Voters are understandably tired of the food fight modern politics has become. So while Trump and others hit each other with cynical attacks, their failure to offer solutions will leave many Americans more angry and disillusioned than ever. 

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In short, it’s not enough for candidates to talk about the problem. They have to offer solutions with a plan for implementing them. As respected pollster Stan Greenberg wrote earlier this year, working-class voters are better able to believe in a candidate’s policy agenda when they first hear that candidates “understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed. Championing reform of government and the political process is the price of admission with these voters.”

The second presidential debate is over – and so is the debate about money’s outsized role in politics. No credible argument can be made that money doesn’t matter. Voters overwhelmingly believe the system is broken and it’s no longer working for them. Now is the time for candidates to tell voters what they’ll do to change it.

David Donnelly is the president and CEO of Every Voice, a national organization fighting for a democracy that works for everyone, not just big donors.