Democrats have a decision to make: do they think money in politics is a corrupting force that influences the decisions made by elected officials, or not? After years railing against the Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to outside spending in elections, some of them appear to have done a complete reversal.
The Clinton campaign has spent the last few weeks furiously pushing back at the criticism that she is influenced by the vast donations her campaign receives from backers in the oil and financial industries. Her supporters have been vigorously arguing there’s no evidence of a quid pro quo.
How quickly they forget. As journalist David Sirota reported earlier this week, in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Clinton harshly criticized then senator Obama for accepting donations from oil and gas executives – and even cut a campaign commercial about it. The kicker? It was less money than Clinton has accepted from people working for fossil fuel companies so far this campaign season.
While Clinton called the suggestion that she might be influenced by the wealthy bankers who raise money for her campaign an “artful smear” in 2016, she also had no problem hurling even stronger accusations about Obama in 2008: “Senator Obama has some questions to answer about his dealings with one of his largest contributors – Exelon, a big nuclear power company,” she said. “Apparently he cut some deals behind closed doors to protect them from full disclosure of the nuclear industry.”
Then there are the closed-door speeches that Clinton gave for Goldman Sachs and other big banks after she left her role as secretary of state. While she has steadfastly refused to release the transcripts, she’s claimed it has never affected her position on the banks one iota. Which is fine, if that’s the principled stance you want to take, but it’s not one her party has had in the past. Mitt Romney washit hard in the 2012 presidential campaign by Democrats for the speeches he gave to financial institutions.
So which is it? Are politicians corrupt (or susceptible to corruption) if they are giving highly paid speeches behind closed doors to financial institutions, or not? It doesn’t work both ways.
Clinton has also criticized the supreme court’s ruling in Citizens United by rightly pointing out that the original case was sparked by an attempt to air a documentary that was critical of her right before an election. Yet she has reaped the rewards from the ruling – possibly more than any other candidate – from myriad Super Pacs and outside groups that have spent heavily in favor of her candidacy.
The president of Citizens United even told the Center for Public Integrity last week: “Wouldn’t you know that Hillary Clinton has become one of the greatest beneficiaries of the Citizens United supreme court decision. It is an irony that is not lost on me.”
Sure, even hardcore Sanders supporters will admit there is no evidence of direct quid pro quo when talking about large donations various parties made to the Clinton Foundation when Clinton was secretary of state. But it would be difficult not to worry about at least the potential for a conflict of interest, when weapons manufacturers and Saudi Arabia were making donations to the Clinton Foundation while their weapons deals were approved by the State Department, oil companies were doing the same before the State Department approved the oil sands pipeline project, and other fossil fuels donated at around the same time the secretary was advocating increased fracking abroad.
But of course there is no quid pro quo – that has never been the prime criticism of wealthy individuals using their vast resources to “buy” elections, push candidates in one direction, or influence office holders in much more subtle and nuanced ways than outright bribery.
And by taking this position that only quid pro quo equals corruption, Clinton supporters are essentially adopting the reasoning of the Roberts court that they claim to abhor – that unless there is direct evidence of overtly trading money for votes, corruption doesn’t exist. As Lawrence Lessig has written, Democrats have been slowly embracing this stance for years, but the Clinton campaign seems to cementing it as the party’s policy.
No one has made this point better than Clinton surrogate and former representative Barney Frank – or should I say, the 2012 version of him. Last week, Frank accused Sanders supporters of engaging in McCarthyism by suggesting that politicians, and Clinton in particular, are influenced by big money contributions from wealthy backers, and as a result, did not push for prosecutions of the executives of large banks. However, Frank sang an altogether different tune about the influence of campaign contributions when he was leaving Congress in 2012.