Dana Milbank: Hillary Clinton’s hypocrisy

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks Wednesday to child care workers in Chicago.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks Wednesday to child care workers in Chicago. The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – In a private meeting last week with 200 of the Democratic Party’s top financiers, Hillary Rodham Clinton drew vigorous applause when she said any of her nominees to the Supreme Court would have to share her desire to overturn the Citizens United decision.

Clinton also, as reported by my Washington Post colleagues Matea Gold and Anne Gearan, put in a plug with the fundraisers (all of whom had hauled in at least $27,000 for her) for a constitutional amendment overturning the ruling, which allows unlimited spending by super political action committees.

Nice sentiments, but the fact that she was unveiling her Citizens United litmus test with party fat cats at an exclusive soiree (four days later, she mentioned it to voters in Iowa) tells you all you need to know about Clinton’s awkward – and often hypocritical – relationship with campaign finance reform.

Even as she denounces super PACs, she’s counting on two of them, Priorities USA Action and Correct the Record, to support her candidacy – a necessary evil, her campaign says. She’s also chin-deep in questionable financial activities, ranging from the soft-money scandals of her husband’s presidency to the current flap over contributions by foreigners and favor-seekers to the Clinton Foundation.

Then there’s the matter of her plans to continue President Barack Obama’s policy of opting out of the public finance system; Obama’s abandonment of the system did as much as the Citizens United ruling to destroy the post-Watergate fixes.

Her advisers claim campaign finance reforms will be at the top of her agenda, a sensible choice because of the deep resentment in the populace toward a political system rigged in favor of the wealthy. But she gives supporters little evidence that she’s genuine.

If she really thinks money is corrupting politics, she can take concrete steps right now. She could pledge to return immediately to the public finance system and call on pro-Clinton super PACs to cease and desist – if her Republican opponents will do the same. The Republicans won’t, of course, but then Clinton would have gained the moral high ground she now lacks.

She could also vow to enact four pieces of legislation if elected: reviving the public finance system with matching funds for small contributions; curtailing candidate super PACs by drafting strict rules prohibiting coordination; forcing the disclosure of anonymous “dark money” contributions; and creating a new enforcement agency to replace the impotent and perpetually deadlocked Federal Election Commission.

There’s a chance she’ll find some Republican support for legislation to restore public financing of elections – if only because the absence of such a system effectively means presidents are elected to eight-year terms, because their ability to raise virtually unlimited sums as incumbents all but guarantees re-election.

If she’s serious in her commitment to campaign finance reform, Clinton doesn’t have to wait until the election. Some suggest she could challenge her opponents to join her in opting into the moribund public finance system (though its matching funds would be absurdly low).

Such an arrangement is probably unworkable, even if Republicans took her up on it. But this and other tangible steps could reduce the demoralizing gap between Clinton’s professed commitment to clean elections and her dubious record.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.