In a private meeting last week with 200 of the Democratic Party’s top financiers, Hillary Clinton drew vigorous applause when she said any of her nominees to the Supreme Court would have to share her desire to overturn the Citizens United decision.
Clinton also, as reported by my Post colleagues Matea Gold and Anne Gearan, put in a plug with the fundraisers (all of whom had hauled in at least $27,000 for her) for a constitutional amendment overturning the ruling, which allows unlimited spending by super PACs.
Nice sentiments, to be sure, but the fact that she was unveiling her Citizens United litmus test with party fat cats at an exclusive soiree (four days later, she mentioned it to voters in Iowa) tells you all you need to know about Clinton’s awkward — and often hypocritical — relationship with campaign-finance reform.
Even as she denounces super PACs, she’s counting on two of them, Priorities USA Action and Correct the Record, to support her candidacy — a necessary evil, her campaign says. She’s also chin-deep in questionable financial activities, ranging from the soft-money scandals of her husband’s presidency to the current flap over contributions by foreigners and favor-seekers to the Clinton Foundation. Then there’s the matter of her plans to continue President Obama’s policy of opting out of the public-finance system; Obama’s abandonment of the system did as much as the Citizens United ruling to destroy the post-Watergate fixes.
Her advisers claim campaign-finance reforms will be at the top of her agenda, a sensible choice because of the deep resentment in the populace toward a political system rigged in favor of the wealthy. But she gives supporters little evidence that she’s genuine. Asked by The Post last month about the role of the pro-Clinton Priorities USA Action, Clinton shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”
If she really thinks money is corrupting politics, she can take concrete steps right now. She could pledge to return immediately to the public finance system and call on pro-Clinton super PACs to cease and desist — if her Republican opponents will do the same. The Republicans won’t, of course, but then Clinton would have gained the moral high ground she now lacks.
She could also vow to enact four pieces of legislation if elected: reviving the public-finance system with matching funds for small contributions; curtailing candidate super PACs by drafting strict rules prohibiting coordination; forcing the disclosure of anonymous “dark money” contributions; and creating a new enforcement agency to replace the impotent and perpetually deadlocked Federal Election Commission.
“We have a history of candidates making commitments to campaign finance reform during the campaign and then walking away from it, in particular with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama,” says Fred Wertheimer , a longtime campaign-finance reformer. “We’re going to need a lot more than what Mrs. Clinton has said in order for this to be treated seriously.”
There’s a chance she’ll find some Republican support for legislation to restore public financing of elections — if only because the absence of such a system effectively means presidents are elected to eight-year terms, because their ability to raise virtually unlimited sums as incumbents all but guarantees reelection.
Stuart Stevens, who ran Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, notes that only one incumbent president in the past 125 years who was not in the public-finance system lost his bid for reelection — and that was Herbert Hoover. Stevens says the 2016 winner, Democrat or Republican, “is going to be almost impossible to defeat” in 2020. (Super PACs won’t completely offset that incumbent advantage, he figures, because the funds are at least theoretically outside the candidate’s control.) The prospect of a de facto eight-year term for a Democratic president could persuade Republicans to support a revival of public finance even if it isn’t “normally in their DNA,” Stevens argues.
If she’s serious in her commitment to campaign-finance reform, Clinton doesn’t have to wait until the election. Stevens suggests she challenge her opponents to join her in opting into the moribund public-finance system (though its matching funds would be absurdly low). To keep the super PACs from filling the void, she could propose both sides disavow them, as Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren did in their 2012 Massachusetts Senate race, pledging to pay a penalty if outside groups ran ads in their race.
Such an arrangement is probably unworkable, even in the unlikely event Republicans took her up on it. But this and other tangible steps could reduce the demoralizing gap between Clinton’s professed commitment to clean elections and her dubious record.