Hillary Clinton surprised the political world when on her first campaign stop as an official candidate in Iowa last month she said reforming America’s campaign finance system would be one of her top priorities. The next week, in New Hampshire, Clinton said it wasn’t enough simply to have the names of big donors disclosed, but that there needed to be real limits on how much they can spend on campaigns.
“What good does it do to disclose if somebody’s about to spend $100 million to promote their own interest and to defeat candidates who would stand up against them? What good does that do?” Clinton told Democratic activists in Concord, New Hampshire.
She added, “We need to get this corporate and unchecked money out of politics.”
But as the New York Times reported on Wednesday, Clinton is not going to practice what she seemed to be preaching. The former secretary of state is meeting with potential donors to Priorities USA, the Democratic super PAC, on a trip to California this week, the first sign of her sanctioning of the group to aid her campaign. Priorities, like the super PAC’s that are aiding Republican 2016 candidates, is expected to bring in donations from individuals that will be hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Steven Spielberg gave the group $1 million in 2012.
Clinton is embracing Priorities USA more than President Obama did during his 2012 campaign. In that race, the president, another rhetorical opponent of unlimited donations in politics, allowed some of his top aides to attend the Priorities’ events, but did not go to them himself. Obama did appear at an event for Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC designed to aid Democratic U.S. Senate candidates, on the eve of the 2014 elections.
Republicans have already slammed Clinton as a hypocrite, and one of her Democratic primary opponents, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has pledged not to have a super PAC supporting his candidacy.
But Clinton really had no other choice. The Republican presidential nominee, the Republican National Committee and groups associated with electing a Republican president are expected to spend at least $1 billion and probably closer to $2 billion to elect a GOP president. Democrats will attempt to match this fundraising, if not raise more.
Under the traditional campaign finance spending rules, individual donations to campaigns are limited to $5400. But contributions to super PAC’s are unlimited.
The Republican candidates, particularly Jeb Bush, are expected to operate much of their campaign operations through their super PAC’s. So if Clinton had opted only to raise money through the legal limits, she would be running a campaign raising $5400 per person, while Bush is currently accepting individual donations to his super PAC of $100,000. Clinton in effect would have needed 18 donors for every one Bush donor.
This would not create just a financial disadvantage for Clinton, but perhaps one of time as well, since she would need to spend more hours attending fundraisers and soliciting money over the phone if she needed to build up a larger bloc of donors.
It’s not clear how far Clinton will go in embracing super PAC’s. Republican candidates Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have some of their top aides operating their super PAC’s instead of working on their official campaigns, making the super PAC’s hugely influential.
So far, the vast majority of Clinton’s top strategists are working in her Brooklyn headquarters, so it’s not clear if Priorities USA will employ her closest confidants. And Clinton’s super PAC has not said if will raise tens of millions from one major donor, the way casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave more than $20 million to bankroll Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign.
However she uses the Super PAC, Clinton made the choice to play by the existing rules of politics, instead of taking a more principled stand that likely would have complicated her path to victory. In 2008, Obama made a similar decision in opting out of campaign finance rules that would have placed limits on his overall spending, even though he had praised that system before.
Clinton, like Obama, is participating in what she has bemoaned: a radical shift of the campaign finance system created in the post-Watergate era that was designed to limit the influence of wealthy donors and encourage campaigns funded by a wider bloc of Americans. The 2016 campaign marks in effect the death of that system and a shift towards a new model in which a very small group of wealthy donors finance many campaigns and will likely have a huge amount of influence over the candidates.
Clinton has said she does not like this new system and would consider backing even a constitutional amendment to change it.
But her embrace of the liberal super PAC suggests, Clinton, in a phrase she used during her last campaign, is in to win.