Like most Americans, I’m looking forward to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s first debate on Monday, when these two forces of nature engage in a battle of intellect, contrasting their visions for America. I hope their exchange will give voters a clear picture of their priorities and preparedness to be president. They have plenty to discuss: income inequality, national security, immigration reform, global trade, climate change, access to health care, taxes, and more.
But I’m worried that debate moderator Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News may not raise the most important issue after he announced his three remarkably broad debate topics.
The first topic he named was America’s Direction, and there is nothing more important to our nation’s direction than determining whether or not candidates will ensure we remain a government of, by and for the people. But the barriers to participation in our democracy are complex: money in politics, partisan gerrymandering, and obstacles to identifying the meaningful and comprehensive solutions Americans from right to left are seeking.
Voters are voicing their concern in different ways, but it’s clear that an overwhelming majority want to hear the candidates’ ideas on how to restore democracy of, by, and for the people. A CBS News/New York Times poll last year found that 84 percent believe money has too much influence in our elections; 85 percent believe our campaign finance system should be fundamentally changed or completely rebuilt, and 85 percent believe that elected officials at least sometimes promote policies tailored to help their campaign contributors.
The media need to ask how candidates will get Americans to work together solving these problems. That’s why “first debate, democracy,” ought to be Holt’s watchwords. There’ll be time in later debates to discuss global and domestic policy priorities; the first Clinton-Trump exchange should be about how we select our representatives and who they serve.
Our current polarized system has failed. It has hamstrung Congress; it keeps wages stagnant and the tax code skewed in favor of the wealthy; it lets Wall Street play fast and loose with the health of our economy; it forces kids and their parents to take on crushing debt in order to pay for college, and it has given us a health insurance regime that caters to healthy people and fends off the injured and infirm.
Money in politics, gerrymandering, and voter suppression—these are the ways both parties have, at different times, rigged the system.
Hillary Clinton has announced a set of comprehensive solutions to fight big money, leading on an issue important to Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters. She seems to recognize that she is a product of a flawed system that relies too heavily on big money and has a plan to fix it. Accountability will be important for voters if she wins.
Donald Trump has boasted of buying political favors for his businesses, arguing that his wealth means he can’t be bought. A super PAC now supporting Trump suggests otherwise and he’s come around to courting big-dollar donors with a passion matching Clinton’s. David Bossie, his new deputy campaign manager, once led Citizens United, the IRS-designated “social welfare” organization whose secret donors underwrote a film attacking Hillary Clinton in 2008. Now, Citizens United is the iconic, and ironic, symbol of everything wrong with money in politics, thanks to the 2010 Supreme Court decision that cleared wealthy special interests to feel as if they can buy our elections.
Trump is right about one thing; the system is rigged. But his billions can’t deliver a healthy democracy and his recent hires suggest he isn’t as interested in the little guy and gal as he sounded in the primaries.
This is why Lester Holt should have Clinton and Trump, two candidates who profess to recognize that they’re in a flawed system, debate democracy first. How will each ensure democracy works for everyone? How will they check wealthy special interests and balance the needs of working families when setting the national agenda? How will they restore competitiveness and make sure every eligible vote is counted in a modern, safe, and accessible election system?
We know Americans want these problems addressed and some candidates are getting the message. More than 200 candidates for the House and Senate have answered a detailed “Who Will Fight Big Money?” questionnaire so voters can make informed choices when selecting the next Congress. Their responses are posted here.
Holt should pose similar questions to Clinton and Trump and make sure they detail how and when they will enact reform. In this first debate, the health of our democracy must be the priority.
Robert Reich is the Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, and author, most recently, of "Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few."