As wealthy liberals prepare to open their wallets and throw their financial support behind Hillary Clinton’s nascent presidential campaign, Clinton has begun aggressively campaigning against the right to independent political speech that the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision restored. Her efforts to blunt this constitutionally protected speech are hypocritical given how she has already benefited and stands to benefit from it.
While speaking at Kirkwood Community College in Monticello, Iowa, Clinton said “we need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccounted money out of it, once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment.” These remarks were not offered in passing. Rather, Clinton emphasized she plans to make campaign-finance reform one of the “four big fights” of her presidential campaign.
In making campaign-finance changes a core tenant of her political agenda, Clinton is seeking to energize a liberal base that has shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy. This is an effort to appeal to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that has been yearning for Elizabeth Warren to launch a presidential bid.
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign-Finance Machine
This effort is ironic, given the cottage industry of third-party groups that have taken on important roles within the Clinton machine to help finance her bid for the White House. While Clinton delayed her formal entry into the race, Ready for Hillary, a super PAC registered with the Federal Election Commission, laid the groundwork for her bid. The super PAC raised over $15 million while recruiting staff and volunteers in key primary states. Ready for Hillary’s most important asset is the email and contributor list they developed with the intention of eventually turning over to the Clinton campaign.
Ready for Hillary has been central to Clinton’s campaign launch, but two additional outside groups plan to take its place going forward. Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that arose during the 2012 election cycle to support President Obama’s re-election, plans to raise $500 million to augment Clinton’s efforts. David Brock also plans to raise funds to support Clinton through his American Bridge 21st Century PAC and affiliated organizations. Clinton and her most generous benefactors appear eager to lock down support for her campaign at the earliest date possible.
Independent Speech Protects the Little Guy
During the 2008 campaign, the Clintons were said to have kept an “enemies list” to target prominent Democrats who failed to endorse Clinton’s bid for the White House. Eight years later, Clinton is again the presumptive Democrat nominee and is in a greater position to punish those who do not rally behind her campaign.
Such outsized influence by the presumptive Democrat nominee highlights the need for independent speech. If an entire class of donors is subject to the threats and intimidation of an incumbent politician or a member of a political dynasty, challengers and dissenters will be far too easily dispatched. The rights restored by the Citizens United decision help break down the institutional advantage provided to these entrenched members of the establishment and make the political process more democratic.
Voters Don’t Want to Restrict Campaign Finance
Clinton would be wise to remember the words of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy: “In the entire history of the Constitution, we have never amended the Bill of Rights, and now is no time to start. It would be wrong to carve an exception in the First Amendment. Campaign finance reform is a serious problem, but it does not require that we twist the meaning of the Constitution.”
Clinton’s effort to make this election a referendum on campaign-finance reform is destined to fail. In 2010, President Barack Obama sought to focus attention on the Citizens United ruling to avoid discussing substantive policies leading up to the midterm elections. In 2014, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid attempted to define the midterm elections as a referendum on the Koch brothers. Neither attempt succeeded in capturing the public’s attention or stemming the tide of public opinion that arose against liberal candidates and policies.
Clinton stands to be the greatest beneficiary of independent political speech this election cycle and is hypocritical to advocate its elimination. If Clinton wants to do something radical, rather than make campaign-finance reform a defining issue of her campaign, she should communicate an agenda to the American public that explains how her policies will differ from those of President Obama. The American people are ready for change, and a slew of well-financed Republican candidates are prepared to offer bold new ideas. She won’t be able to silence them.