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Warren’s Plan to Spurn Big Money Donors Has a Catch

The Democratic frontrunner missed a chance to do something truly revolutionary.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I wrote that Senator Elizabeth Warren should not raise funds from millionaires at private fundraising events if she is the Democratic nominee, and argued that she “cannot spend a primary campaign proudly rejecting big donor money because she recognizes its dangerous influence on politics, and then turn around and take millions of that same money in the general election, without being a hypocrite.” Warren is clearly a faithful reader of my posts, because this week she changed her position. In an interview with CBS News, Warren was asked if she would commit to forgoing fundraising events “no matter how much money Donald Trump is raising,” and she affirmed that she would: “Yeah, I’m not going to do the big-dollar fund-raisers. I’m just not going to do it. The whole notion behind this campaign is that we can build this together.”

Hours later, the Warren campaign rowed back that statement, telling NBC News that Warren would “continue to raise money and attend events that are open to the press” for the Democratic Party itself. Fundraisers stacked with millionaires and billionaires still count as grassroots, apparently, as long as it’s for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and not her campaign.

It is surely better if Warren keeps her promise to only attend fundraisers that are open to the press—that at least reassures us that the events won’t include Warren standing up and promising a room of billionaires that she’ll go easy on them, offer up ritual sacrifices of the poor, or whatever else it is that rich people get up to in the privacy of their climate-change survival bunkers. It would be hard, though not impossible, for Warren to have back-slapping wink-and-nod conversations with rich donors with the Associated Press taking photos. Still, presidential campaigns lie all the time, and it’s very possible that the definition of “open to the press” may change; there are a lot more unanswered questions about the level of access these donors will ultimately get.

The distinction between raising money for her own campaign and raising it for the DNC is not as significant as her campaign makes it out to be. In 2016, the Hillary Clinton campaign raised millions for the Hillary Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee with the DNC and state parties, though most of that money ended up back in the national DNC’s hands. Politico reported at the time that this setup allowed Clinton to “solicit checks of $350,000 or more from her super-rich supporters at extravagant fundraisers including a dinner at George Clooney’s house and a concert at Radio City Music Hall featuring Katy Perry and Elton John.” (Warren closed her own joint fundraising committee before she ran for president.) This addiction to big-dollar fundraising led to acidic headlines in The New York Times: One story, “Where Has Hillary Clinton Been? Ask the Ultrarich,” noted that Clinton had “been more than accessible to those who reside in some of the country’s most moneyed enclaves and are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to see her” during the summer of her campaign.

Clinton was always more at home palling around with the big donor network than Warren seems to be—though Warren’s Senate campaign saw her host intimate steakhouse fundraisers for big donors too, Clinton had many years more experience of floating amongst the moneyed elite. She was also personally wealthy, obscenely so. But the problem remains: Warren intends to make raising money from the elite an important part of her political project.

What is the problem with raising money from millionaires and billionaires? First and most obviously, it matters because of the risk that candidates will change their policies in office in order to ensure future donations: If you piss off Jeff Millionaire too much, he won’t donate to you. Similarly, if your proposed policies during the election are too much for Jeff, he won’t write that check. Now, it seems very unlikely that many big donors would think Warren a good target for this sort of blatant quid pro quo; taxing the rich is sort of her whole thing. But big donors will still have an interest in making sure the Democratic Party continues to depend on their donations when it comes time to, say, work on reining in drug prices, or making housing more affordable. In this way, it’s almost worse that she wants to help keep the DNC itself stocked with the kind of cash that impedes it from being a genuine advocate for the working class; her campaign has a much purer pedigree here than her party does.

If the country is to survive, the next Democratic president must remake the Democratic Party itself. The institutions and organizations of Democratic power in Washington are hopelessly awash in corrupt money, and more highly attuned to the concerns of the donors on whom they depend than ordinary voters. They’re also more concerned about recruiting Democrats who can raise money from the rich than prospective office-holders who are uniquely committed to achieving a grand scale of change, and they work to shut out the candidates who won’t play that game. And what we know about how the House Democratic caucus works plainly shows that their internal system of rewards and promotions are predicated on fundraising prowess rather than policymaking: members that reliably bring home the pelf get slated for plum committee assignments, where the larger party agendas are set. The structure seamlessly siphons donor money and influence right up the chain of command.

Warren’s decision to placate and enmesh herself in these institutions is an indication that she has less interest in revolutionizing the party than in working within its creaky machinery to attain power. But we knew this already: In August, The New York Times reported that Warren was quietly “signaling to party leaders that, far from wanting to stage a ‘political revolution’ in the fashion of Mr. [Bernie] Sanders, she wants to revive the beleaguered Democratic National Committee and help recapture the Senate while retaining the House in 2020.” In this context, “revive” means “raise lots of money for,” which the article made clear: She told donors at a DNC event this summer that she had “raised or gave more than $11 million helping get Democrats elected up and down the ballot around the country” and “sent contributions to all 50 state parties, the national committees and the redistricting fight.”

If you want to know whether or not big donors shape our politics, you need only ask them. Rufus Gifford, who is apparently not a character in a British children’s book about a teddy bear but a former Obama national finance chair, tweeted after Warren announced she wouldn’t attend big donor fundraisers that her decision would “bankrupt” the Democratic Party. (Gifford has so far donated to two Democratic presidential candidates: He maxed out to Cory Booker and Joe Biden.) Gifford’s service as donor-wrangler in the 2012 Obama campaign was followed up by a totally coincidental span as ambassador to Denmark. Isn’t it nice when the perfect candidate for the Denmark ambassadorship just happens to have worked as your finance guy?

When Warren is helping to raise money from big donors, it matters very little whether it ends up in her campaign account or the DNC’s. Money that goes to the DNC will help her get elected. But the deeper the Democratic Party entrenches itself as a party of the rich—the more tangled up it gets in the influence of people who would drop tens of thousands of dollars on eating terrible steak in the presence of the next president—then the further the party will stray from the big, structural change Warren claims to want. She may not want the party to unilaterally disarm, but she also might not realize who’s actually holding a gun to their head.