In the first months of the Democratic presidential primary, one of Hillary Clinton’s advisers conducted focus groups and polling of swing voters to examine “voter distrust” of the political system. The results showed Clinton would benefit greatly if she aggressively pushed policies embraced by Bernie Sanders in his agenda against corruption, according to a document published by WikiLeaks.
On one hand, the research is another reflection of how Clinton and nearly everyone else around her possess an inability to do the right thing without taking a poll first. Yet, on the other hand, the research shows Clinton’s campaign is well aware that as president they should pursue the vast majority of the reforms supported by the Sanders uprising.
Neera Tanden, the president of the think tank, Center for American Progress, produced a memo on government reform and public corruption that was sent to John Podesta, campaign chairman, and Jake Sullivan, a senior policy adviser to the campaign on March 1.
“From our extensive research,” Tanden indicated, “voter distrust of government has reached alarming levels. However, ironically enough, the distrust is based on a liberal critique of government, not a conservative one. It is nearly universally believed that the government works for the rich (80% of voters nationwide), big corporations (83%), and special interests (84%) over the interests of the middle class.”
“The public’s distrust and anger at who the government is working for right now (the wealthy and special interests), and who it’s not working for (us) is a searing issue,” Tanden concluded. “My view is that political leaders communicate that they are part of the solution with bold actions and plans, or they will be seen as part of the problem. And being seen as part of the problem is a potentially deadly liability.”
According to the memo, 19 ideas were tested “amongst soft partisans.” The results were the following:
—66 percent supported increased public reporting so voters know more about how government spends money
—62 percent favored stronger bribery laws to ensure politicians are not influenced to alter legislation as a result of donations
—61 percent favored a requirement for public reporting of “government purchases or contracts” and “stricter penalties for contractors, who violate agreements
—60 percent favored strict limits on the amount of money lobbyists and their clients may contribute
—60 percent supported requiring organizations that spend money on election ads to disclose major donors
—53 percent supported a ban against paid lobbyists “physically entering Congress or otherwise trying to influence legislation”
—52 percent favored a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision
—52 percent supported a lifetime ban on lobbying by former representatives or senators of Congress
—50 percent backed revisions to the income tax code to “eliminate all special interest deductions
Support for public financing of elections was minimal. Only 30 percent felt it would be effective. In fact, Tanden acknowledged “some traditional progressive solutions do not answer voter concern. Merely increasing “democratic participation” or “government efficiency” was not viewed as enough to fix the system.
Tanden recognized, “In this way, Sanders’s appeal is not in his campaign finance solution. It is in the fact that he can’t be bought because he has small donors. And [Donald] Trump’s appeal is similar though inverse: he can’t be bought because he’s rich enough to have no donors.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren has previously proposed ending the practice of allowing regulators to have histories in industry. But Tanden declined to test this issue with “soft partisans,” even though it might be popular because she felt it would undermine the need to “promote congressional reforms.”
In an email, Sullivan responded to the memo. He suggested supporting more “public reporting” or transparency was “easy enough.” Strictly limiting contributions from lobbyists and their clients was seen as “challenging” because “clients” might be difficult to define.
“Would we limit the funds given by people working for companies that lobby more than those who don’t? Not sure how that would work,” Sullivan argued.
Sullivan indicated strengthening bribery laws to limit the political influence of donations on legislation was a “favorite” idea “but really dicey territory” for Clinton.
Tanden replied, “This is a jump ball. She may be so tainted she’s really vulnerable.” And, if that is the case, “Maybe a message of I’ve seen how this sausage is made, it needs to stop, I’m going to stop it will actually work. So maybe it requires harder charging.”
“People are up for radical solutions. My gut is to push here,” Tanden added. She even argued the policies that barely polled 50 percent should be considered because there was an opportunity here to truly connect with voters.
Sullivan informed Tanden the campaign would “mull” these ideas—many which were already a cornerstone of the Sanders campaign.
This research ultimately had a minimal influence on Clinton’s campaign. In April, during the Brooklyn debate, Clinton declared, “We will celebrate our diversity. We will work together, bringing us back to being united, setting some big, bold, progressive goals for America.” It was not a message railing against the political system but rather a much more safe message, dependent on identity politics and the fairy tale that the country has ever been able to unite around the kind of reforms citizens need.
Meanwhile, it was Sanders, who had the message resonating with voters. As he said at the Brooklyn debate, “The reason that our campaign has done so well is because we’re doing something very radical: We’re telling the American people the truth. And the truth is that this country is not going to move forward in a significant way for working people unless we overturn this disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision and unless we have real campaign reform so that billionaires and super PACs cannot buy elections.”
“This campaign is also determined to end a rigged economy where the rich get richer and everybody else get poorer, and create an economy that works for all of us, not just the one percent,” Sanders added.
The Clinton campaign put together hundreds of pages of attacks on Sanders in order to help them skewer his “unrealistic” ideas. But, for what it’s worth, the memo validates the Sanders campaign—from his embrace of a constitutional amendment so Congress and the states could regulate money in elections to working to eliminate super political action committees or super PACs and outside spending abuses.
Finally, Tanden viewed the research as positive, since likely voters did not favor libertarian solutions. Seventy-two percent of “swing voters” insisted government could be a “force for good with the right leadership.” Fifty-seven percent favored government taking a more active role to fix problems. Around 73 percent supported government taking concrete action to create jobs.
What this suggests is when grassroots movements mobilize under a Clinton administration to advance many of Sanders’s socialist ideas that gained popularity among millions of voters, Clinton would be wise to embrace their goals and go beyond traditional progressive establishment policies that fail to meaningfully address social injustice. However, up to this point, the record of her campaign indicates Clinton will govern as a moderate centrist and control and limit the influence of Sanders people so her administration does not stray too far away from the corporate Democratic politics she and her husband, Bill Clinton, are more comfortable with promoting.