Despite the blur of activity by innumerable candidates, the 2016 presidential campaign so far is a mostly shapeless enterprise, save for one dominant factor: the prominence of money in the narrative. More than anything, money has been the defining characteristic of the race, highlighted by the political and private activities of the brand names of Clinton and Bush.
In their own ways, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush have brought unintentional attention to the role of money in politics and public life, to the intersection of money and political and public influence, and to the general absence of restraints, self-imposed or enforced.
For Clinton, the story is partly about non-campaign money, about fundraising for the Clinton Foundation as well as the extraordinary amounts of money she and former president Bill Clinton have been paid for speeches since early 2014. For Bush, it is the apparent disregard for the spirit of campaign finance laws as he travels the country, filling up his super PAC with tens and tens of millions of dollars, all the while posing as someone still trying to decide whether he will become a candidate.
Clinton cannot shake off questions and criticism about how she and her husband have cashed in after leaving public service. Even though much had been written about the amounts each of the Clintons was being paid for speeches to corporate, trade-association or educational institutions, the revelation last week that they have received about $25 million for 104 speeches since early 2014 was eye-popping.
Hillary Clinton likes to say the deck is stacked against average Americans. She said Tuesday in Iowa that she wants to “reshuffle” that deck. No doubt that is a genuine belief from a Democratic politician looking at the state of the economy and comes with a conviction that public policies can and should be geared to alleviate the imbalance, at least somewhat.
But she and her husband also are evidence of the imbalance. Bill Clinton’s declaration that he will continue to make paid speeches because, as he told NBC News, “I gotta pay our bills” sounds tone-deaf in the face of it all.
The Clinton Foundation points to another problem of a Clinton presidential candidacy: the potential conflicts of interest — real or perceived — that the foundation’s fundraising could pose should Hillary Clinton win the White House in 2016. The charitable foundation does good work — few would dispute that. But the sources of money are not all equal, particularly foreign governments. Appearances count.
As a candidate, Clinton has chosen to make money in politics one of the pillars of her platform. From the day she did her first campaign event in Iowa in April, she has talked about her belief that the campaign finance system needs to be reformed, even if it takes a constitutional amendment to do so.
She told fundraisers last week and repeated in Iowa on Monday that, as president, she would apply a virtual litmus test for Supreme Court nominees, seeking justices who favor overturning the Citizens United decision, which is credited with bringing about the era of super PACs and the further empowerment of billionaire donors at the expense of everyone else.
That’s an extraordinary statement, perhaps proof that she is truly committed to changing a system that has led to a dramatic escalation in fundraising and spending, to levels unheard of not long ago, and to the empowerment of the wealthiest people in society. Even those who raise and spend the money for campaigns say it is too much, that it is obscene and distorting and possibly corrupting. Without doubt, it is contributing to the cynicism with which many Americans view the political process.
A constitutional amendment, however, is years in the future. It might never happen. In the here and now, are there steps other than rhetorical commitments that Clinton could take to show some break with the past? So far, there have not been any. Why not? In fact, she is exploring ways for her campaign to coordinate directly with a recently formed super PAC, Correct the Record, in what will test the limits of the law.
No rational campaign strategist would tell her to do anything that would limit her ability to compete. In other words, no unilateral disarmament. As the saying goes, they gotta pay the campaign bills, and those bills will be costly. Still, it’s a question worth asking, and an explanation worth hearing, from a candidate who has put the issue front and center at the start of her campaign.
Meanwhile, Bush continues on with the ruse that he is still deciding whether to run — as he regularly says in front of audiences, the lawyers make him issue a qualifier to keep him on the right side of the law. No one in any audience is fooled.
This, after all, is coming from someone who, since late last year, has been running aggressively, who has made multiple trips to Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina to address voters and participate in cattle calls, who has hired a first-rate staff of strategists and communicators, and who has cozied up to rich people in small gatherings in New York and California and Illinois and Florida and Texas.
Once he becomes a candidate, the rules will sharply limit Bush’s ability to coordinate activities with his super PAC. Until he is a candidate, he can remain in the thick of building a war chest, coordinating strategy, sharing data and analysis, talking directly to advisers who will later be walled off. He can personally work out which responsibilities will fall to his campaign and which will go to the super PAC.
Bush is helping to stockpile money in his super PAC in a way no previous candidate has ever done — and in ways none of his prospective rivals are doing. He is creating a new model, one that may be within the letter of the law but that nonetheless mocks a long-ago-shredded system of campaign finance. His one effort at restraint, if it can be called that, was to ask super-PAC donors at one point to limit contributions to $1 million.
Campaign money has rarely been a voting issue for most Americans, however much they deplore the expense of campaigns and the distortions it brings to the way politicians spend their time. It probably won’t be an issue in 2016. But there is no escaping the fact that campaign and non-campaign money continues to define and shape the 2016 race — and at least two of its leading candidates.