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Democrats’ new “Better Deal for Our Democracy,” explained

Democrats are hoping Trump’s “drain the swamp” promise will come back to bite him in the 2018 midterms.

Pelosi And Schumer Offer Prebuttal To Trump's Address To Congress
Congressional Democrats, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, unveil their new agenda for the 2018 midterms.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Congressional Democrats have unveiled their pitch to voters in 2018: They’re calling bullshit on President Donald Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp.”

House and Senate Democrats rolled out their campaign platform Monday, taking aim at corruption and pay-to-play politics in Washington under the Trump administration. They’re betting this message will help them win voters in the months leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, when the party hopes to regain control of the House — and maybe even the Senate.

The plan is called “A Better Deal for Our Democracy” — a spin on their economic platform, “A Better Deal” — with proposals to protect and improve voting rights, new ethics laws, and campaign finance reforms, including policies that would make lobbyists’ activities more transparent and tighten rules around bribery and fraud convictions.

Congressional Republicans have had to answer for — and have largely gone along with — an unprecedented number of corruption and ethics scandals under the Trump administration, from Cabinet secretary resignations to Trump’s personal lawyer taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from Russian oligarchs and major international corporations in exchange for “insight” into the Trump administration. Democrats are hoping to brand the first two years of the Trump presidency as the “most corrupt administration in modern times,” drawing on recent polling that shows voters mobilize around the “money in politics” issue.

The platform itself is reminiscent of a message Democrats campaigned on in 2006, a midterm election year that also came after historic Republican corruption scandals and resulted in Democratic control in the House, Senate, and a majority of governorships. With Trump’s record-setting unpopularity and a Democratic voter base enthusiastic to come out and vote, Democrats are banking on this message to bring them sweeping electoral wins once again.

Democrats’ “Better Deal for Democracy” platform, explained

Democrats first announced the “A Better Deal” campaign, last summer, focusing on economic and political inequality “with Better Jobs, Better Wages and a Better Future for all Americans.”

This latest agenda, however, is focused on corruption around three pillars: voting rights and access, campaign finance, and pay-to-play politics. Democrats are planning to unveil a House resolution on the floor later this week along these lines, with specific bills to address the issues.

1) Democrats are focusing on voting rights. In light of the outcome of 2016 election and subsequent investigations into voting integrity around possible Russian interference, Democrats are zeroing in on voters and increased mistrust of the election system. Their platform ranges from access to polling places and gerrymandering to concerns about hacking on Election Day. They’re pushing to bolster the Election Assistance Commission’s resources and implement automatic voter registration and gerrymandering reform. House Democrats will propose mandating independent commissions across the country to ensure district lines are not partisan.

“We make voting in this country more complicated than it needs to be,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), the chair of the Democracy Reform Task Force, which led the effort to write this agenda, told me.

2) They’re highlighting corruption and ethics violations in the Trump administration.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt Testifies Before House Appropriations Cmte
Many Trump administration officials like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have come under scrutiny for ethics violations.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

“Way too many ethics lines are being crossed by the administration,” Sarbanes said. “That’s not an opinion. That’s an observation.”

To counter it, Democrats plan to hit the campaign trail with policy proposals aimed at tightening lobbying rules.

Among these proposals would be legally requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns. That’s a direct reaction to Trump, who has yet to release his financial records, bucking decades of political precedent and breaking his own promises of transparency.

Sarbanes also cited a proposal that would tighten lobbying rules and institute statutes against former lobbyists becoming Cabinet officials in agencies that have purview over industries that previously employed them.

3) Democrats take a swing at campaign finance reform. This third pillar focuses on transparency in campaign donors. Sarbanes also cited a proposal that would create a 6-1 small-donor match program — a federal public financing system aimed at bolstering donations under $175.

Democrats ran on this message in 2006. It was very successful.

For those who have followed Democratic Party politics over the past two decades, this platform looks a lot like Democrats’ agenda in the successful 2006 midterm elections, when they made sweeping electoral gains.

In 2006, Democrats rolled out the “Six for ‘06” agenda, a core pillar of which was “Honest Leadership and Open Government,” including democratic reforms like banning lobbyist gifts and travel and increasing transparency around special interest influence. That push was a direct reaction to a series of corruption scandals involving Republican figures, including the bribery ring involving now-infamous Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which landed several George W. Bush Cabinet officials and Republican legislators in jail.

After winning control of Congress, Democrats passed an ethics reform package in 2007 — which Bush signed — that addressed some of these pillars, including a ban on lobbyist gifts and a requirement that senators pay charter plane rates for riding in a private jet. Of course, lobbyists continue to find loopholes in this process.

The similarities to the 2006 effort are by design.

After a year of Republican tax cuts — a core element of which was a massive cut for corporations — and what Democrats are calling a “full-frontal corporate assault on workers’ rights and consumers’ protections,” the party thinks the political climate is ripe for this message again. They have referred to the GOP tax bill as a “tax scam” and a giveaway to the wealthiest Americans. By 2027, 82.8 percent of the bill’s windfall is projected to go to the top 1 percent, according to a Tax Policy Center analysis.

Not to mention there’s been a spate of corruption allegations and ethics violations, some of which have gone un-investigated under the Trump administration — most recently involving Scott Pruitt, the embattled Environmental Protection Agency chair, who is under several investigations for excessive spending.

Others like Ryan Zinke, Ben Carson, Tom Price, David Shulkin, Kellyanne Conway, and Ivanka Trump have all come under scrutiny, and in the case of Price and Shulkin, led to resignations.

After the 2006 elections, the exit polls indicated that corruption was among the key issues driving voters to the polls. Democrats seem to be banking that the same will be true under Trump.

The polling shows this message resonates with voters

Tax Day Activists Hold Marches In Major U.S. Cities
Protesters call for Trump’s tax returns at a rally in New York City.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Despite facing a generally difficult electoral map, Democrats are confident that high levels of enthusiasm will help drive a blue wave across the nation in November — aiming to flip at least 24 seats to take back control of the House.

But there’s been a big question mark over which messages Democrats should lead with. Should it be a policy-focused drive, aiming toward the progressive talking points that took hold of the 2016 Democratic primary, like universal health care and income inequality? Or a direct admonishment of Trump, whose approval rating has hovered around a low 42 percent at best? It’s a debate the party continues to have.

So far, the major shows of Democratic strength — from an upset win in the Pennsylvania special election with Conor Lamb to impressive gains in deep-red districts in Arizona to an almost-sweep statewide election in Virginia — have shown Democrats focusing on politics and the Republican agenda instead of Trump specifically.

There’s been a notable focus on health care, especially after Republicans spent the greater part of their first year in control of Congress trying to repeal an increasingly popular Obamacare, only to then successfully repeal the individual mandate in their tax bill. And now Democrats are establishing that their campaign against Trump will be focused on corruption and cronyism in his administration and in the Republican Party as a whole.

There’s a reason for this; according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll in late October 2017, a majority of voters saw money in politics and wealthy donors as the top two culprits behind the current dysfunction in US politics:

At least 6 in 10 Democrats, Republicans and independents say “money in politics” deserves a lot of blame, while smaller majorities blame “people with extreme views,” and more than 4 in 10 of each group blame members of Congress.

A report from the progressive group End Citizens United shows that voters polled in January 2018, found Democrats to lead Republicans on reducing special interest money in government and elections, but fell behind in bringing change to Washington (or as Trump puts it, draining the swamp). It appears as though Democrats are trying to drive this point home — and bring new faces to do it.

“We will be talking about how the institutions are not as responsive as they need to be,” Sarbanes said. “We will talk about how the Trump administration and the GOP and Republicans in Congress are … aggravating the problem.”