Clinton's Best Defense

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, October 22, 2015, before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. 

As a well-funded constellation of conservative groups swings into action to attack Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner is fighting fire with fire. From day one of her campaign, Clinton has made no bones about her need to raise big money, and lots of it.

A big chunk of the $1 billion Clinton and her allies have set out to collect will go toward defending her against the scorched-earth assaults of what she once dubbed the “vast, right-wing conspiracy.” The pro-Clinton group Correct the Record, which has raised $5 million to date under the leadership of hard-charging political operative David Brock, has no purpose other than to defend Clinton “from baseless attacks,” as its website states. The pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action recently booked $96 million in TV ads attacking Donald Trump, a preemptive strike in a race Democrats expect to be brutal, negative, and costly.

It should come as no surprise that Clinton is playing by the existing rules even as she calls for a campaign-finance overhaul. Nobody expects Democrats to unilaterally disarm, and Trump himself is busy raising money from deep-pocketed GOP donors—having promised voters last year that he was “not controlled by my donors, special interests, or lobbyists,” and was “working only for the people of the U.S.”

Nevertheless, Clinton’s reliance on costly ad blitzes to defend herself against critics makes her vulnerable to further attacks. Her appeals to Wall Street donors and coordination with such big money groups as Correct the Record reinforce her image as an untrustworthy professional politician and party insider.

Another, more successful approach—one that Clinton has largely ignored—would be for her to actually campaign on the political money reform platform that she rolled out in September. Clinton won kudos from watchdogs when she pledged to reverse the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling, pull back the curtain on secret money in elections, and match low-dollar campaign contributions with public funds.

Clinton’s reform platform is similar to that of Bernie Sanders, but she’s done little to talk it up. When the campaign reform group Every Voice held focus groups in Cleveland earlier this year, says the group’s president David Donnelly, voters given Clinton’s political money platform without hearing who authored it invariably identified it as a Sanders plan. Moreover, Donnelly notes, once participants learned the plan was Clinton’s, they were more inclined to back her.

“She has a tremendous opportunity to seize this issue and inoculate herself against some of the worst criticisms that have been leveled against her,” says Donnelly. Progressive organizers have set out to convince Clinton to champion campaign reform more aggressively. Trump has handed Clinton an opening, by embracing the GOP donor class on the heels of his boasts that self-funding kept him above the fray. And even Sanders, for all his attacks on Wall Street—and on Clinton, for her financial sector ties—has spent little time on the stump talking about actual campaign-finance solutions.

“She’s going to have to do some sort of pivot that turns to the general election, that turns to differentiating herself from Donald Trump, and that attracts the supporters of her primary opponent,” argues Donnelly. “I think this issue hits all three. And she doesn’t have to change her position to talk about this. She just needs to talk about it.”

Clinton may be understandably gun shy. She remains under fire for the $11 million she pulled in for paid speeches to banks and other industries, and for failing to release the transcripts. Reports continue to surface—investigated, no doubt, with the help of the dozen or so conservative opposition research groups, media outlets, and political shops toiling to dig up dirt on her—of the millions raised by the Clinton Foundation from donors with ties to foreign governments. Scandals rightly or wrongly associated with the Clintons have fueled a parade of books, movies, congressional hearings, and investigations, and there are doubtless more to come.

Still, Clinton has yet to give a serious speech spelling out why, while she has mastered the campaign-finance system, the rules need to change. She could be writing op-eds, highlighting state and local campaign-finance reforms, and speaking about these issues directly to angry voters. At a minimum, she could tap a surrogate, such as House Democrat and reform champion John Sarbanes, of Maryland, to rally voter support on her behalf, says Donnelly.

Asked about the danger that Clinton would invite scrutiny of her own fundraising, Donnelly replied: “She’s going to be called a hypocrite regardless. She’s going to be called every name in the book. She might as well have a message for everyday people about how she’s going to turn politics back into their hands.”

Trump, too, would do well to directly address voters’ concerns about political money, says John Pudner, executive director of the conservative campaign-finance group Take Back Our Republic. Trump’s anti-big donor message was so central to his primary that his move to tap GOP rainmakers “could hurt him” if he doesn’t find a way to maintain his anti-establishment appeal, says Pudner. Trump’s own campaign-finance platform is a muddle of contradictory statements about super PACs and public funding, making his position (as usual) hard to pin down.

“The irony we have right now is that Trump has actually talked a lot about money in politics but doesn’t have a platform on it” says Pudner. “And Hillary has a platform on money in politics but hasn’t talked a lot about it.”

The challenge for Trump is that GOP leaders strongly oppose campaign-finance curbs, despite polls that show Republican voters are irate over big money. Pudner sees an opening for Trump to embrace reforms aimed at keeping foreign money out of the system, for example. But for Clinton, a full-throated endorsement of campaign-finance reforms would meet with universal progressive acclaim—and prove more effective than yet another high-dollar ad blitz.

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