Could Hillary Clinton Be the Champion Campaign-Finance Reform Needs?

The former secretary of state is an unlikely reformer—which is precisely why she might be a particularly effective one.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Exactly fifty-five years ago today, Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, addressing the biennial convention of the American Jewish Congress, joined a growing chorus of liberal leaders effectively declaring a boycott against Lyndon Johnson’s candidacy for president. Wilkins praised Richard Nixon and “all the Senator-candidates … except Senator Lyndon B. Johnson.” Three months earlier, Americans for Democratic Action had declared “Johnson Rejected” in its editorial. As it quoted a Democratic member of Congress, “ADA, union officials and colored leaders may not have the votes to put a presidential candidate across at the convention, but they sure have the votes to block a man.” Johnson was the man these groups would block.

The overwhelming sense of Wilkins’ speech is “enough.” The NAACP had just turned 51. Since its birth, it had seen great progress. But 95 years after slavery, it was finally time for America in general—and in the strong sense of the speech, the Democratic party in particular—to make equality of citizenship its central value. The bending to the political power of southern racists had to end. “Silence [by northern whites] under these conditions means tacit approval.” African Americans were “finished,” Wilkins declared, “with segregation.” Both the “Republican and Democratic party platforms ... must ... speed first class citizenship for Negro Americans.”

Some Democrats today are in a similar place to where Roy Wilkins was in 1960. And for the reasons his movement had then, they too should say, “Enough.”

The issue today isn’t the racism of the old south (though obviously, if we must still remind ourselves that #BlackLivesMatter, racism remains a central issue for modern American politics). The issue is corruption. And not for some priggish, moralistic reason. Modern American political corruption has become the central mechanism by which the equality of citizens in America today is denied. And in modern America, it’s not just African Americans who need to fight for an equal voice in our elections. It is all Americans—or practically all Americans.

For America has evolved a political system that gives to the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent unprecedented political power. Almost a century ago, Texas gave birth to the “White Primary,” which explicitly excluded African Americans from the right to participate in selecting the candidates who could run in the General Election. Today, America has evolved a Green Primary, which effectively excludes 99.9 percent of Americans from the right to participate in selecting the candidates who get to run in both the primary and general elections. That selection is made through money, as candidates dance before their donors (just think of Marco Rubio dancing in the Sheldon Adelson primary), begging the rich to support them. Americans have thus allowed money to corrupt the basic commitment to equality of citizenship, just as they once allowed racism to corrupt the basic commitment to equality of citizenship. And unless at least one party stands up and defends a commitment to equality among citizens, that seems unlikely to change.

Yet this is becoming an increasingly difficult position for Democrats to take. The leading candidate in the Democratic primary for the 2016 nomination for president has become enmeshed in a welter of stories raising questions about the relationship between the public good and the private interests of herself and her husband, including their family foundation. First a book by Peter Schweizer, then a series of articles in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, and now an investigative series by the International Business Times all raise the question of whether the Clintons have traded public position for private gain, and more troublingly, whether public policy has been bent by Clinton or those loyal to Clinton to encourage private gain.

The Clintons have responded to these charges by attacking their principal source. Schweizer is a conservative partisan, they insist. They have taken issue with specific charges: Clinton was not paid to give speeches in Ireland, the campaign has said. And they have also responded by insisting that no one has pointed to a “smoking gun.” As George Stephanopoulos asked again and again it in a particularly harsh interview with Schweizer (before he had revealed that he himself was a donor to the Clinton Global Initiative), “Do you have any evidence that a crime may have been committed?”

This response is truly astonishing—as if the only legitimate question that can be raised about high-government officials is whether they have broken the law. I am quite certain that the Clintons have not broken the law. They are both brilliant lawyers. They are both surrounded by teams of brilliant lawyers. In my view, there is zero chance that any transaction happened in a way that could trigger the incredibly narrow regulations of “quid pro quo” bribery or influence statutes.

But to suggest that criminality is the only relevant standard is to betray an astonishing blindness to the core problem of corruption in America today. When Democrats rail against the influence of the Koch brothers, are they saying they believe the Koch brothers are criminals? That the Kochs have engaged in quid pro quo bribery with Republican representatives and members of the Senate? That if critics only looked carefully enough, they’d find a smoking gun? I certainly am not. Or when activists ridicule the Supreme Court’s obliviousness in Citizens United to the influence of unlimited expenditures in American politics, is that because they are insisting the money is actually a quid pro quo? Because they believe that the only problem with this money is if there is a quid pro quo? Again, that’s not my understanding of the problem with SuperPACs.

I fear Democrats have fallen into a fatal case of denial—fatal to the cause of winning in the 2016 election. Because the defense “we are not crooks” (The Clintons) will be no more effective than “I am not a crook” (Nixon). And the questions that have been raised not just by partisans but by an increasing number of reporters will be pressed again and again over the next 15 months until America can’t miss that there’s something deeply troubling here, even assuming that there is not a “crime.”

The question is not whether Hillary Clinton is a criminal. Of course she is not. The question is whether she can carry the mantle of a reformer. Can she really stand above the cesspool that is Washington—filled not with criminals but with decent people inside a corrupted system trying to do what they think is good—and say, this system must change. And does she really see the change that’s needed, when for the last 15 years, she has apparently lived a life that seems all but oblivious to exactly Washington’s problem.

The great irony of Roy Wilkin’s speech, of course, was that he was exactly wrong. The one man who it turned out could deliver to Americans a commitment to racial equality was the one man Wilkins said African Americans would not support. It is hard to read history carefully and conclude that anyone else but Johnson could have overcome the racists in the Senate, and pass the Civil Rights and then Voting Rights Bill. If Wilkins had gotten his way, Martin Luther King would never have glimpsed the Promised Land before he was killed.

But Wilkins was so wrong only because the stand he took was so right. African Americans and civil-rights activists set the bar that Johnson recognized he needed to clear. And so he cleared it. The skepticism about Johnson determined what success for Johnson would be. Once that target had been painted, the extraordinary ambition of perhaps America’s greatest politician carried America to a place  not even Wilkins could dream of.

The same could be true of Hillary Clinton. There is no doubt that she is by far the most qualified candidate running for President. No one has the experience that she has. No one has the depth of knowledge. No one has the personal insight to the incredible burden the office of the President is.

But Hillary Clinton has a Johnson problem. It is completely fair, on the basis of her record so far, for Americans to wonder whether she even gets the problem of corruption in America, and whether she recognizes its equality-destroying character. She wants to be the public “champion.” But does she see what she must champion against?

If she is to staunch the slow bleed that is the inevitable consequence of the questions that continue to be raised, she needs to speak, clearly and powerfully, to demonstrate her recognition. Voters need to hear that she sees just why there is a problem with the mixture of influence that has surrounded her, her husband, and the Clinton Foundation. They need to be assured that those questions won’t continue if she’s president. Will her husband continue to take hundreds of thousands of dollars to speak in third world countries? Will he praise dictators while his friends sign contracts with their corrupt regimes? Will the empire-building end? Or will it just continue, now fueled with the influence of the most powerful office in the world?

And much more importantly, voters also need to see that Hillary Clinton understands the profound changes that America’s democracy needs—not just with money in politics but with every flaw that denies Americans equal voice in their government. It is not enough to make cheap promises to push a constitutional amendment, as she has done. Reversing Citizens United alone won’t fix the problem. Washington will not change until the economy of influence fueled by the lobbying-industrial-congressional complex is radically changed. And that won’t happen until Congress changes the way campaigns are funded. To earn the public’s trust now, Clinton must make the public funding of public elections the first issue in her presidency, just as Johnson made passing the Civil Rights Act the first issue of his administration.

It is 227 years since James Madison promised a “representative democracy” “dependent on the people alone,” where “the people” meant “not the rich more than the poor.”  America should give that representative democracy a try.