What got lost in the mudslinging of the second presidential debate was a watershed in U.S. political history – the political reforms that a majority of Americans back in opinion polls gained an advocate moving closer to the White House.
Virtually unreported in the uproar over the venomous clashes on stage was Hillary Clinton’s telling answer to Beth Miller, a citizen participant in the town hall. Miller observed that the choice of the next Supreme Court justice was perhaps the most important aspect of the presidential election and then asked: “What would you prioritize as the most important aspect of selecting a Supreme Court justice?”
Clinton shot back: “I would want to see the Supreme Court reverse Citizens United and get dark, unaccountable money out of our politics.”
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Donald Trump sidestepped, boasting that “I’m not taking all of this big money from all of these different corporations like she’s doing.”
But in fact, Trump’s campaign has teamed with the Republican National Committee to raise corporate and billionaire MegaMoney, just as Clinton has. And Trump made no pledge to reform the system.
For the future, what counted was Clinton’s stance as the first major-party nominee pledging to work for campaign finance reform in the White House.
Clinton’s pledge echoes Republican Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft who thundered a century ago against the corrupting influence of corporate money and robber baron donors in American election campaigns. They eventually got corporate campaign donations outlawed in 1907 – until the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.
What is striking in this year’s presidential race is that for the first time in modern campaign history, multiple contenders openly endorsed the populist charge that American democracy has been corrupted by MegaMoney from billionaires and corporations, and then called for reforms to re-establish a more level playing field.
Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders, of course, broke the ice. It was his clarion call for a political revolution that fired the insurgent Sanders candidacy and enabled him to win 13.1 million votes in Democratic primaries and carry 23 states. Sanders alone staked his bid on a populist demand for sweeping reforms to restore campaign funding limits, to break up partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, and to enact voter protections and public financing of campaigns.
Under pressure from Sanders, Clinton was moved to promise that if elected, in her first 30 days, she would “propose a constitutional amendment” to overturn the Citizens United decision and to restore the power of Congress and the states to regulate campaign money. She pledged to appoint justices who understand that Citizens United “was a disaster for our democracy,” to back legislation to empower small donors and to require federal contractors to report their campaign donations. Now, in the homestretch, she has reaffirmed that commitment.
But the germ of reform spread far beyond Democrats. During the primaries, it blossomed in the stump speeches and media interviews of Republicans Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Lindsey Graham. Among the major contenders, only Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio resisted the reform bug.
Trump never called for reform, but he repeatedly mocked his Republican primary rivals as Lilliputian puppets beholden to MegaDonors aiming to buy influence with their contributions to candidate super PACs.
“People love the fact that I’m putting my own money in,” Trump bragged, “unlike Bush, who is totally controlled by these people, and unlike Hillary and honestly Marco and everybody. Ted Cruz, he’s got a lot of people putting big money in.”
The biggest flip-flop came from Bush. Before bowing out, he swung from champion fundraiser to caustic fund rebuker. Having personally compiled the largest bankroll in super PAC history, more than $100 million, Bush underwent a battlefield conversion.
“This is a ridiculous system we have now,” Bush told CNN, “where you have campaigns that struggle to raise money directly and they can’t be held accountable for the spending of the super PAC that’s their affiliate,” which is precisely what candidate Bush had been doing since early 2015.
Once eager to keep donors secret, Bush came out for “total transparency” on campaign funders. To stem the uninhibited flow of campaign cash, Bush said he would try to switch Supreme Court rulings or, if that failed, “there is a growing sense that we need to amend the Constitution,” thus endorsing the position already taken by Graham.
As an advocate for reform, Kasich put his priority on funding for small campaign donors to counteract billionaires and for ending partisan gerrymandering, a well-entrenched strategy of Republicans in his home state of Ohio and a key underpinning of the Republican majority in the House.
“We need to eliminate gerrymandering,” Kasich told the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. “We’ve got to have more competitive districts.”
Both Sanders and President Barack Obama also advocated gerrymander reform as essential to giving voters more authentic choices in elections and to re-establish a more level playing field. But Clinton did not adopt gerrymander reform.
Where Clinton and Sanders have come together is in promoting a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision; in advocating tough new disclosure laws requiring that all campaign spending be rapidly made public so that voters can see who bankrolls whom; in calling for a federal matching fund system to multiply the impact of small donor contributions; and in protecting voters’ rights at the polls.
But the key question remains: Will all this rhetoric turn into action after the election, especially among congressional Republicans who have so far staunchly blocked reform legislation. For them, the sheer fact that several GOP presidential contenders have endorsed reforms signals a palpable shift in the political terrain.
Reform now has bipartisan acceptance at the summit of American politics, and if Clinton wins, it will have a committed advocate in the White House – as well as Sanders in the Senate to hold her feet to the fire.
Hedrick Smith is former Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, author of “Who Stole the American Dream?” and executive editor of reclaimtheamericandream.org. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.