Donald Trump thinks he knows what's ailing our political system — corrupt lobbyists buying off politicians in exchange for government favors.
"Their lobbyists, their special interests and their donors will start calling President Bush, President Clinton," Trump has said. "And they’ll say: ‘You have to do it. They gave you a million dollars to your campaign."
He usually goes on to state that since he doesn't need this money, he'll be freed from this corrupting influence. "I'm self-funding my own campaign," he's said. "It's my money." (That's not entirely true — Trump has raised several million dollars in unsolicited contributions, but he has loaned his campaign far more of his own cash.)
But according to several campaign finance experts I interviewed for this story, Trump's analysis doesn't account for money's true impact on our politics. The real problem with our campaign finance system, they say, is not that it creates a quid pro quo in which donors are transactionally rewarded for their gifts, but that it elevates the priorities of the wealthy across the board.
"The influence is not nearly as crude as he puts it," says Richard Skinner, a policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in politics. "It is certainly accurate to say that these large donors are going to get better access to have their voices heard, but I think people give predominantly because they share the views of the candidates or are strong supporters of the party."
Trump seems to imagine a direct line of influence from lobbyist to politician. But the real problem is a lot more complicated — and requires a different solution than the one he advances.
The real problem with our campaign finance system
The bigger problem with our campaign finance system is that in having to raise huge sums of money, politicians end up spending far more time with the superrich than they do with the poor and middle class.
This leaves them much more attuned to the priorities of elites, amounting to a perversion of democracy perhaps as dangerous as the quid pro quo envisioned by Trump.
"Most people concerned about campaign finance are concerned that there's plenty of evidence that the views of very wealthy people are reflected in the views of public policy," Skinner says. "The fact that you have people spending so much of their time with very wealthy people affects not only the policies they adopt but also their worldview."
Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, cited the complaints about fundraising told by Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy as an illustration of the warping influence of money on political priorities.
"Murphy would sit in a room and call people who could give $1,000, and at the end of eight hours he actually came to believe the carried interest was a major issue for the country," he said. (The loophole allows fund managers to pay much lower rates on their federal taxes.) "Maybe they didn't buy his vote, but he came to believe their issues mattered. He didn't speak to one person on food stamps on those calls."
This is what makes Trump's response so off. He's a billionaire notorious for partying it up with the rich and famous. Since he's ordinarily part of elite social circles, he'll be keenly attuned to their issues. Note, for instance, that his tax plan is absurdly favorable to the top 1 percent of Americans.
Furthermore, Trump hasn't proposed or even gestured toward a policy that would eventually give someone who isn't either a bought-off politician or a self-financed billionaire a greater chance at becoming president.
"You can say that if you're spending your own money, you're free to do what you think and not be obligated to donors," says Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit that focuses on government transparency and campaign finance. "But the other side of that coin is to say, 'We don't want really wealthy people to buy elections and have a system only run by the superrich.' And Trump doesn't say that."
The deterioration of America's campaign finance system
It wasn't always this way. From 1976 to 1996, practically every presidential candidate used public financing to pay for their campaigns. The model worked simply: Candidates agreed to spending limits on their campaigns in exchange for government funds.
But over time, Congress refused to increase the amount of money available for candidates — even as the cost of operations for candidates soared.
"You just became less and less able to go into the system and run competitive races with the spending limits, which were just too low," Wertheimer says. "Congress never allowed us to adjust them."
By 2000, George W. Bush realized — correctly — that he could raise more money independently by opting out of the public system. Howard Dean and John Kerry followed suit for the primaries in 2004.
In 2008, Barack Obama became the first candidate since Richard Nixon to win the presidency on private financing. The Citizens United Supreme Court case in 2010 allowed unlimited donations to Super PACs. By 2012, public financing of the presidential campaign was all but meaningless; by 2016 it was a distant afterthought.
"It's really been one election after another where the public system further and further deteriorates," Skinner said.
It's not that there aren't ideas about how to fix this. Bernie Sanders has advanced an amendment that would restore the public financing of federal elections. Hillary Clinton wants a matching grant system for small donors. New York City has set up an agency that awards public funds to candidates.
Getting any meaningful reform through the current system, however, will be an uphill battle.
"Anyone promising that the world will be completely different immediately is blowing smoke to a certain extent," Daniel Weiner, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, recently told the Center for Public Integrity. "Our campaign finance infrastructure and our overall electoral infrastructure turn like an aircraft carrier."