Politics is so often a game of unforeseen consequences. Back when the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that rich people and special interests should have the freedom to pump unlimited bucks into political campaigns, everyone assumed it would be a godsend for the Republicans. President Obama was so upset that he rebuked the berobed brethren during his 2010 State of the Union address.
Yet, with respect to the 2016 presidential race, the prime beneficiary of Citizens United is Hillary Clinton.
The ruling gave birth to super PACs – groups that can now raise and spend as much money as they want on behalf of a favorite candidate, bankrolled in many cases by wealthy donors – and various Obama operatives are already revving up super PACs for Hillary. One of those groups, Priorities USA, is currently soliciting seven-figure checks from liberal fat cats. These super PACs have already enabled Hillary’s allies to far outdistance any would-be Democratic rivals, as well as all potential Republican foes down the road.
Funny how Democrats who once vociferously complained about Citizens United now seem perfectly fine with it.
They’re not claiming-complaining anymore that the playing field has been tilted toward the GOP. Even some of the campaign finance reformers, who rail all the time about the bad influence of big money, seem far more sanguine. As reformer Adam Smith remarked the other day, “Politics is full of irony. Democrats were slow on the take after Citizens United. They are now going to make sure that they use all the tools in that toolbox.” After all, he said, Hillary Clinton is “a politician who has to work with the system as it is.”
That latter remark said it all. You go into political battle with the system you have, not the system you’d ideally like to have.
Democrats relearn that lesson all the time. Back in the ’90s, when Hillary’s spouse was president, he talked a lot about banning “soft money” (unlimited donations to political parties). But when his re-election briefly seemed imperiled, and when it was clear that Congress had no interest in banning soft money, he got practical and competed so intensely for soft money that he wound up doing cheesy things like renting out the Lincoln Bedroom to big Democratic donors. He decided that winning came first, and then maybe you could do reform.
It was the same deal after Citizens United. Democrats got all upset – until they decided that the new system was here to stay, and that the only course of action was to use it well. Hence the birth of Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super PAC that raised $80 million during the ’12 election cycle – roughly one-third of the money came from 25 rich people – and spent it lavishly on TV ads that successfully tagged Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch one-percenter.
Democrats weren’t thrilled about joining the big money race, but they made their peace. Obama ally David Axelrod said on TV, “I don’t think it’s healthy. I don’t think it’s good. But it’s the system we have.” And Bill Burton, an Obama White House aide who transitioned to Priorities USA, said that even though “the laws we have are not the ones we wish we had,” cold reality, and the need to win, take precedence.
Now, Priorities USA is being retrofitted for ’16; its pro-Obama operatives are being joined by seasoned Hillary hands. They’re planning to hit up rich donors now, in order to gird for battle. (Assuming, of course, that Hillary will run. Which is probably a safe assumption.) They’ll use the money to rebut future attacks on Hillary, and to define her opponents in early TV ads (“define” is a synonym for portraying them in a negative light). Plus, this super PAC will reportedly have access to the Obama team’s microtargeting prowess, the ’12 voter-hunting technology that ran rings around Romney and his right-wing super PACs.
And there’s a second super PAC, Ready for Hillary, featuring a slew of Bill-Hillary operatives. In some Democratic circles, Ready for Hillary is variously dismissed as “a kind of clearinghouse for people angling to get in early,” and “a make-work program for former Clinton hands,” but the group – which is capped donations at $25,000 – has a strong social media presence, including 700,000 followers on Facebook. It plans to plow the grassroots while Priorities USA takes to the airwaves.
All told, no other ’16 aspirant remotely rivals Hillary on the super PAC front, thanks to Citizens United. Which is ironic, because when Hillary was a senator, she voted for campaign finance reform and voiced support for the public financing of campaigns as a way to curb the power of big money. But hey, you use the toolbox you have.
Of course, her infrastructure-in-waiting is no guarantor of victory – Clintonworld infighting undercut the candidate in 2007 and 2008 – but for now it’s a great way to dissuade other Democrats from running and to remind Republicans that, in all likelihood, the road to the White House goes through her. Indeed, with Chris Christie’s bandwagon getting more rickety by the day, that road looks even more daunting. No wonder some Republicans refer to Hillary as “she who should not be named.”
And what about David Bossie, the longtime anti-Clinton activist who runs Citizens United, the conservative group that prompted the high court case of the same name? Is he miffed that his old nemesis has benefited from the ruling? Last week, the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity wanted to know. This was his response: “Yeah, the irony of Hillary benefiting from Citizens United is not lost on me. Frankly, I’m entertained by it.”
Yeah, sure he is.
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