Gary Hart says money in politics is corrupting the U.S. government, and he's asking the 2016 White House candidates to put a stop to it.
Hart, a former Colorado senator and two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said Monday that candidates seeking the White House should should get as far away from political action committees as possible during their bids in order to limit corruption in government.
"I'd urge candidates not to take political-action-committee money, to resist the efforts of outside interests—the so-called 'super PACs'—to campaign on his or her behalf," Hart said at the bookstore Politics and Prose in northwest Washington. "I guess now, under Citizens United, you can't demand that somebody doesn't take out an ad on your behalf, but I'd sure make it clear you didn't appreciate it."
Hart has been touring the country naming campaign finance, among other issues, as failings in the country's political system. His new book, The Republic of Conscience, argues that American democracy has been led astray in its foreign and domestic policy from the original intent of the Founding Fathers by "corruption" enabled, in part, by unlimited money in government and the revolving door between the Hill and the lobbying industry.
When Hart ran in 1984 and 1988, his campaign eschewed PAC donations, citing conflict-of-interest concerns. ("They're not raising all that money for fun," he said.) He eventually rose from the single digits and credibly challenged former Vice President Walter Mondale for the Democratic nomination. However, he finished the 1984 campaign more than a million dollars in debt, and he writes that he understands (though doesn't excuse) the financial pressures induced by multimillion-dollar campaigns.
While the 2016 field seems unlikely to surrender its super PACs any time soon, Hart had other, more pragmatic advice for candidates, including for a Minnesota state Senate candidate whose father was in attendance Monday. "I would just tell him not to talk down to people. Talk up to them," he said. "The other thing people are tired of ... are candidates who demean their intelligence, who don't take them, their intelligence, seriously and sound like they're talking to eight-year-olds. People want serious ideas."
Still, the corrosive power of money in politics remained the former official's main message.
"Some years back, a prominent senator was fond of saying with regard to the relatively modest lobbying influence of the day: 'If I can't take their money and drink their whiskey, and then vote against them, I shouldn't be here,'" Hart writes in the book. "That was then. And then campaigns cost much less than they do today. Few if any can now claim to take their money and drink their whiskey and vote against them. Anyone who does will soon find closed wallets and fleeing contributors."
If Hart was hoping for his party to unilaterally disarm in the arms race for campaign dollars, it didn't seem apparent. Of his own Democratic Party, Hart said, "I don't see it right now as a reform party."
"As you all know, anytime you have a discussion of this sort, the candidate says, 'Well, I'm going to play by the rules "¦ so I can get elected and then when I get into office I'll change them,'" Hart said. "The short answer is: I don't think the parties have stepped up. Either one of them."
Hart in the past has expressed support for former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who, like Hart, started his wonkiness-driven presidential campaign from a statistical tie for last in the polls. O'Malley worked for presidential candidate Hart as a volunteer and aide. But even O'Malley has a super PAC supporting him in 2016, called Generation Forward, and his campaign last quarter drew in nearly $22,000 from political committees, according to Federal Election Commission records. Hart didn't mention O'Malley in his remarks. A press secretary for O'Malley's campaign noted that the governor has already stated his "extreme displeasure" that Generation Forward is airing negative Web ads against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Hart is a few years removed from politics. Until last month, he served as State Department special envoy to Northern Ireland, a position he vacated, he said, to speak freely about the ideas in his book. And before admonishing candidates of both parties for the alleged sins associated with PAC money, he offered one important caveat:
"Given the fact I was not successful as a national candidate," Hart said half-jokingly, "I shouldn't advise anyone on [campaigns], particularly under these new conditions."
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Zach Cohen is a web producer for National Journal Hotline. Before joining National Journal in 2014, he interned at The Washington Post, Time Magazine, USA Today and PBS MediaShift and wrote about politics and government for New Voices. Zach was born and raised in New Jersey and got his bachelor's degree in international relations from American University, where he served as editor-in-chief of The Eagle, the school newspaper.