Bob Kerrey is a former democratic U.S. Senator of Nebraska, served as the state’s 35th governor and is a member of the ReFormers Caucus of Issue One
It is an underappreciated small miracle that so many Americans are paying close attention to the presidential campaign. Some are predicting that the number of voters watching Monday night’s debate will equal the viewers who watch the Super Bowl.
There is reason to hope for another small miracle—that both Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will agree that the methods by which campaigns are financed require significant reform—an effort they will hopefully undertake.
Throughout the primaries and general election, both candidates rallied voters to their cause by laying bare the realities of pay-to-play politics and dysfunction in the current system. Americans have been inundated with headlines about cronyism and accusations of selling access.
Public polls indicate that voters have been particularly incensed this entire cycle. Ninety-one percent of Republican Iowa Caucuses-goers told Bloomberg and the Des Moines Register they were “mad as hell” about the amount of money in politics. Worse, public trust in government institutions has plummeted with anti-establishment views eclipsing the U.S. political stage. Gallup reports that 75% of the U.S. public believes corruption is widespread throughout our government.
This is the moment to do something more than lay blame. The candidates must show the broader public that Americans are greater than the politics and parties that have historically divided us. While it’s true that modern-day political debates are more akin to televised verbal high-wire acts than learned discourse on ideas and policy, we have a recommendation, based on years of campaigning for gubernatorial, congressional and presidential offices.
Our recommendation to the candidates is to honestly tell the American people that the barrier for elected office is higher than it ought to be. The first question you should be asked if you throw your hat in the ring is whether you meet the constitutional requirements to serve and what you will do if elected.
But that isn’t what happens. Rather, the first question is whether you can raise enough money to compete. The modern conclusion is that if you can’t raise the money, you’re unqualified to run for office. It is not in the Constitution, but it’s the reality of our current politics.
Here are a few hard truths: in any given election, a determined group or set of groups, with sufficient resources, can drive a candidate out of a primary or politics altogether. In fact, presidential election spending has doubled since 2000. In this cycle alone, by the end of August super PACs had raised more than $1 billion, a third of which was represented by the top 50 donors being represented.
If both candidates believe their rhetoric that their opponent is tarnished due to their affiliated foundations and alleged favor-seeking practices, it is not enough to merely outline the issue, but rather forge innovative and bold solutions that mitigate them. We do not need a president who acknowledges problems and turns away, but instead one who tackles the difficult tasks of negotiating and solving problems—otherwise known as governing—with gusto.
Make our elected officials responsive to us again, not just the corporations, unions and special interests that can afford to buy-in to the high-stakes influence game. Make us believe in the potential of the American people again.
There is room for leadership on this issue and voters will coalesce behind the candidate who chooses to step out front first. Not since Republican President Theodore Roosevelt’s proclamation, “There is no enemy of free government more dangerous and none so insidious as the corruption of the electorate,” and subsequent passage of the Tillman Act has the public stood so firmly behind this cause.
We believe there is reason to hope for this small miracle: that the next president will be a champion of this cause on behalf of a better democracy.