I’m embarrassed by our campaign finance system. And as a long-time participant in the system, for me to get here, it must be pretty bad. So-called “campaign finance reform laws” have created a surreal world where the official campaigns aren’t where the campaigning is being done. I can’t say it any better than the recent article “Trading Places” in the National Journal. Tim Alberta and Shane Goldmacher, who wrote this thoughtful piece about the impact and increasing necessity of super PACs, said, “[SuperPACs] pose an existential threat to the old order. The campaigns themselves may soon become subordinate; as Mitt Romney demonstrated in the 2012 primary, a candidate can win without an effective campaign but not without an effective super PAC.” How can the public interest be served in a world where an unaccountable super PAC is actually bigger than a candidate’s formal campaign?
But here we are. The fact is, while a lot of insiders fret over campaign finance reform — and there’s the occasional oddball who flies a gyrocopter onto the Capitol lawn in furtherance of making some sort of point about campaign finance — the average voter generally doesn’t care. They know our campaign system is broken, and they tend to think all politicians are basically on the take and that big money wins elections.
Speaking of big money, Team Clinton is hustling to discredit the forthcoming book, “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich” by Peter Schweizer. In fair disclosure, the book hasn’t even be released, and obviously I haven’t read it. But it must be worrisome since the Clinton machine is already complaining it’s part of a vast right-wing conspiracy. The book’s revelations notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton is destined to have money problems — the kind of problems that come with having too much money (both personal and political), not too little money. I’m not foolish enough to suggest she should do anything to weaken her fundraising efforts, but she might want to think about doing some cosmetic things that could give her some inoculation, endear her to the Elizabeth Warren crowd and create a platform from which she can grandstand against Republicans. After all, among the Republican field, everyone will be taking any money they can get. It might be worthwhile for Clinton to try to set a little contrast for her apologists to exploit.
So why hasn’t Clinton declared that she will follow President Obama’s example from 2008 and placed some restrictions on the sources of her campaign money — such as refusing to take money from lobbyists, certain PACs, etc.? It wouldn’t really cost her anything. I’m sure the Clinton campaign must have at least thought about it, but it seems like it would have been a good move for her to just take federal matching funds for the primaries. After all, Clinton is virtually unopposed. Is there such a thing as an embarrassment of riches in politics that could be counterproductive? In the pre-convention period, could Clinton find she has too much money and further deepen the negative stereotype she has for being greedy? Why would she want to risk appearing to want more for no particular reason other than more is better? And speaking of surreal, the Clinton campaign so far is a campaign that shies from the media, avoids big crowds and has too many funding sources. Sheesh.
In the meantime, now would be a good time for the bipartisan congressional leadership and the leaders of both national party committees to come up with a consensus plan for campaign finance reform to be introduced in early 2017. I will be harping on this in the days ahead. Maybe we are at a place where things have finally become so convoluted that Republicans and Democrats will agree nothing could be worse. There aren’t 50,000 voters who even know what the current laws say but they know the system is warped and they resent it. So why don’t we deregulate the campaigns, candidates and the parties and make campaign finance reform all about real-time disclosure, rather than an exercise in plausible deniability and threading the legal needle? It makes no sense to keep laws that dictate who can give what to whom, who has to pretend they don’t know about what and allow the billionaires to pick our president.
At the end of the day, elections should be between campaigns, the parties and voters. The campaigns should be able to take contributions in any amount from any U.S. source and deal with the consequences of accepting this or that donation. Nobody should be kicked out of the system because the First Amendment allows full participation, but everyone should be funneled through campaigns that are held accountable to voters and are forced to answer questions about whether or not they are corrupted by the source of their funding.