Good grief, Hillary Clinton is pitching campaign finance reform. It’s Groundhog Day all over again.
You know how Bill Murray keeps waking up on the same morning to the same old song? That’s how I felt this week when I heard Hillary’s vow to “fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all.” She said it’s one of her top priorities.
Don’t believe it. Hillary said the same thing early in her first presidential bid. It was empty rhetoric in 2007, just as it is now. To borrow a line of dialogue from Veep, it’s just “noised-shaped air.”
I get why she’s saying it. She wants to woo Elizabeth Warren’s fans, the liberal Democrats who agree with Warren that “the system is rigged.” She’s trying to make nice to the voters who suspect, rightly or not, that she’s beholden to shadowy special interests.
But I doubt she’ll follow through. The Clintons have talked reform for decades – while always raking in the bucks, exploiting all loopholes. In fact, it’s happening again: “(W)hile Mrs. Clinton criticizes ‘unaccountable money’ in politics, her family foundation has raised tens of millions of dollars outside the campaign system from foreign governments and corporations seeking access and influence in Washington.”
This game goes way back. Bill pledged during his ’92 bid that campaign finance reform would be a top priority. But as president he never pushed for it; he and his strategists decided that their only choice was to work the existing system to the fullest extent. Result: the 1996 Democratic fund-raising scandal. The Clinton campaign rented out the Lincoln Bedroom to high-rolling donors. Private money got laundered through tax-exempt houses of worship. Illegal foreign money wound up at Democratic headquarters. The scandal culminated in 22 guilty pleas and scores of shady characters fleeing the country to avoid questioning.
And if you’re thinking that Hillary shouldn’t be dinged for what Bill did, consider what happened in 2007. Her actions were not in sync with her noise-shaped air.
She said that she was “very much in favor of public financing, which is the only way to really change a lot of the problems that we have in our campaign finance system….I”m going to co-sponsor anything (in the Senate) that looks like it can move us in that direction.” But at the time she said these nice things – this was September ’07 – she was breaching the primary season’s public financing rules.
Under the post-Watergate rules, the feds doled out money to the primary season candidates. The system worked well for roughly a quarter century. But it had always been voluntary – and at the start of ’07, Hillary made history by becoming the first Democratic candidate to drop out completely. She decided instead to vacuum as much private cash as possible – thus exacerbating the money chase, and prompting Barack Obama to drop his public financing in order to keep pace.
By the way, Hillary paid a political price for her privateering. One of her fundraisers – whose job was to vacuum the cash – was a guy named Norman Hsu. He turned out to be a fugitive from justice, dating back to a ’92 fraud charge. There were early indications in ’07 that Hsu was bent, but Hillary and her team dragged their feet for three months (as I wrote at the time). Hsu is currently in the slammer, and is slated to stay there until 2030.
So here goes Hillary goes again, talking up reform. Meanwhile, she’s ramping up for a record monetary haul – roughly $300 million from “super PACs” (thanks to the courts, these groups can vacuum unlimited donations); and at least a billion in donations to her campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Those are the rules of the game this year, and I know it would be nuts to unilaterally disarm. The goal, after all, is to win.
But since that’s the reality, she shouldn’t waste our time mouthing pledges that will never be kept. Nobody believes her; she just stokes the public’s cynicism by talking that way. Indeed, “while polls consistently show that most people dismiss the current system as corrupt, they have no confidence that the politicians will clean it up.”
I wrote that…in 1997.