WASHINGTON — Democrats are trying to make an anti-corruption case ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, accusing Republicans of allowing themselves to become beholden to corporate interests during the Trump presidency.
The message, articulated Tuesday in speeches from two potential 2020 presidential candidates, aims to undercut President Donald Trump's argument that he has taken steps to "drain the swamp" in Washington and rein in the influence of lobbyists.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren issued a stark warning about Trump's efforts to deregulate the federal government, calling it a deceptive way to help the nation's wealthiest Americans and corporations. Warren said corporate interests and Republican allies were working to roll back rules to protect consumers and attacking the consumer financial agency she helped develop during the Obama era.
"Back in 2016, Candidate Trump made big promises, promises to drain the swamp, promises to fight for working people, promises to ignore lobbyists, promises to stand up to Wall Street," Warren said at the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards symposium. "It's clear now that those promises were just part of the scam — a scam that has paid off handsomely for Wall Street."
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who was re-elected in 2016 even as Trump won his state by 20 points, used a speech at the Center for American Progress to promote ways of reducing the influence of big money in politics.
"Money in politics is fundamentally eroding American democracy and what it should or used to stand for, a government of the people and by the people and for the people," Bullock said.
Trump is planning a blitz of several Republican-leaning states with Democratic senators on the ballot this year, including Montana, where Sen. Jon Tester is seeking re-election. Part of the president's strategy involves warning that Democrats would undo his sweeping tax overhaul and negate his slashing of regulations that he says has helped the economy.
"They're energized," Trump said of Democratic voters in a Monday conference call with supporters. "And not for good — they're energized for a lot of bad things to happen."
Bullock, who recently made his first trip to Iowa, home of the nation's first presidential caucuses, pointed to his role as the state's attorney general in challenging the 2010 Citizens United case. The landmark Supreme Court ruling allowed corporations and labor unions to spend freely in elections, as long as they did so independently of candidates.
After the Supreme Court overturned Montana's century-old ban on political spending by corporations, Bullock said he worked with both parties to approve a new state law requiring more disclosure of political committees' contributors and spending. "We didn't give up and it has made a meaningful difference," he said.
Bullock said he plans to sign an executive order this week that requires the recipients of certain government contracts to disclose their political donations, including contributions to so-called "dark money" groups not required to disclose their donors.
The speeches signaled how Democrats plan to make ethics and campaign finance reform a point of emphasis as they challenge Republicans this year amid the backdrop of the Russia investigation and oversight of Trump's Cabinet. The money in politics message has served as an early litmus test.
Warren said she would soon introduce "sweeping anti-corruption legislation to clean up corporate money sloshing around Washington." Several potential 2020 Democratic candidates, including Warren, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, have said they won't accept campaign donations from political action committees connected to corporations. Bullock noted he hasn't taken corporate PAC money to his federal PAC.
Democrats are also seeking to place a spotlight on members of Trump's administration. Scott Pruitt, Trump's administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has been under scrutiny since revelations that he rented a Capitol Hill condo tied to a prominent oil and gas lobbyist for $50 a night. Warren said "corruption oozes out of his office," but also pointed to his rolling back of environmental rules, along with similar efforts by several Cabinet members.
"Strong government rules matter. We cannot — we must not — accept a government that works only for a privileged few," Warren said.
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