Fool Me Once

Hillary Clinton is running for the Democratic presidential nomination while also pledging to reform our out-of-control, shameful campaign finance system. She has called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 "Citizens United" decision that largely created today's campaign-finance landscape. She also offers a few other bells and whistles dear to reform groups, namely, public matching funds for small donor contributions, more public disclosure of corporate political spending, and an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending.

Meanwhile, candidate Clinton has given the go-ahead to establish super PACs -- supposedly not coordinated with her official campaign -- to raise as much money as possible for her 2016 presidential bid. Her surrogates have even hinted at raising and spending a staggering $2 billion on her presidential campaign. That's a lot of money - and you can't reach that figure the old-fashioned way: by adhering to the current federal limits on individual contributions.

The Clintons always trot out a favorite campaign meme about people who "work hard and play by the rules." Yes, she is technically "playing by the rules" with respect to the PAC, super PAC, and individual campaign contributions coming her way, but she is also speaking out of both sides of her mouth simultaneously when it comes to her reform agenda. The media and the voters should call her to task for this doublespeak.

By contrast, Secretary Clinton's principal Democratic primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Independent democratic socialist from Vermont, has denounced super PACs and refused to allow them to be established as adjunct campaign operations. Donald Trump opposes super PACS but, of course, he doesn't need them, since he can self-finance his presidential campaign (and rely on a reflexively responsive media to provide him all the free coverage he needs).

When he ran for re-election in 2012, Barack Obama made similar pledges to Secretary Clinton's -- and kept none of them. Moreover, while many focus on the damage done by "Citizens United," we should not forget the irreparable damage that stems from Barack Obama's own presidential campaigns. After all, he was the candidate who broke the system first. In fact, he's broken it repeatedly.

During his 2008 presidential primary campaign, Senator Barack Obama agreed to accept campaign spending limits in exchange for receiving support from the presidential public funding system that was established in the 1970s after Watergate. But when it came time to raise money for his general election campaign, Senator Obama became the first presidential candidate in the system's history to opt out of the presidential public financing scheme. He did so because he thought he could out-raise by tens of millions of dollars his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, who stuck by his pledge to abide by the public financing system's spending limits and limited funding. The result: Obama spent over $300 million on his general-election campaign; McCain received and spent the paltry $84 million he received from the public financing system.

Of course, as he broke the presidential financing system, candidate and then president Barack Obama promised to fix it. He did nothing during his first term. As his 2012 re-election campaign was gearing up, he once again opted out of the spending limits regime altogether, but said that he would oppose having a parallel super PAC. When he saw that his Republican opponents were readily embracing super PACs, he abandoned his earlier opposition, authorized a super PAC, and even made a limited number of appearances to raise money for it.

There is no reason under the sun to expect that, if elected president, Hillary Clinton would behave any differently than Barack Obama. We have seen this bait-and-switch routine repeatedly with Obama, and the media and the voters need to press candidate Clinton now for more specifics about her promises. Once elected with the assistance of super PACs, candidates will find it almost impossible to break the addiction. They claim, as a matter of practical politics, that they cannot afford to "unilaterally disarm."

Here's what we need to know from Hillary Clinton:

  • Will she provide a draft of her proposed Constitutional amendment and start marketing it now?
  • Will she announce that key ambassadorial posts in her administration will be awarded on the basis of merit and experience rather than on the amount of bundled campaign contributions?
  • Will she urge the Securities and Exchange Commission, notwithstanding recent Congressional constraints, to move forward now on its recently abandoned proposed rule mandating greater disclosure of public companies' political spending?
  • Will she promise now that, if elected, she will forsake reliance on super PACs in her reelection campaign?
  • Will she urge her former boss, Barack Obama, to issue an Executive Order now to require federal contractors to disclose their political contributions? Obama is reportedly considering several Executive Orders on all sorts of issues during his last year in office. An Executive Order for federal contractors is a no-brainer. He could do it tomorrow.

To his credit, Senator Sanders is following John McCain's principled stance. Perhaps the recent Sanders surge in Iowa and New Hampshire reflects his authenticity and his courage.

For too long, campaign-finance-reform advocates have been patient dupes. If Secretary Clinton thinks she can coast to the White House with Obama-style winking and nodding, let's hope she continues to "feel the Bern."

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H. W. Bush White House. He was president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012 and serves on the board of the Center for Political Accountability.