Clinton’s campaign finance proposal & the long road to reform

Hillary Clinton’s release of her campaign finance proposals on Tuesday confirms there will be no significant substantive differences on political reform among the aspirants for the Democratic presidential nomination but a huge gulf between the two parties, whoever the nominees.

Harvard law professor and activist Larry Lessig announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination this past weekend based on the single issue of political reform, but his quixotic and gimmicky campaign is akin to carrying coals to Newcastle. His only difference with the other Democratic candidates is his insistence that political reform (primarily on campaign finance) should be of the highest priority and other concerns (immigration, wages, climate change, economic inequality, infrastructure, national security) should play second fiddle. Lessig apparently believes that Republican and independent voters will rally to his call and create a broad base of public support for bipartisan cooperation on changing the rules of the electoral game.

If only it were that simple. The gaping differences between the parties on campaign reform are both ideological and strategic. Republicans are more philosophically disposed to elevate free speech over political equality. They also realize that as presently constituted, their party is advantaged by fewer or no restrictions on money in politics, lower turnout among minorities and youth, and single-member districts. Democrats instinctively reject the argument that money is speech and are comfortable with using public authority to set and enforce the rules of democracy. But they also know that they would benefit from restrictions on big money in elections, guaranteed voting rights for all citizens, and a more proportional translation of votes into seats.

The Clinton campaign finance proposals generally follow the thrust of liberal reformers: building a counterforce to big money through multiple matching funds for small donors, increasing transparency by requiring timely disclosure of mega-contributions and transfers that now evade public scrutiny, and overturning Citizens United, which set the stage for a Wild West of outsized contributions and spending. Her support for a constitutional amendment to accomplish the latter is a pipedream and probably wouldn’t work if it were adopted. As she acknowledges, appointing Supreme Court justices to change the current 5-4 majority is the more promising route to the desired change.

Lessig’s dream notwithstanding, this particular agenda will be achieved only if and when Democrats manage to control both ends of Pennsylvania long enough to put the policies and a sympathetic Supreme Court in place. It’s an important choice for voters to consider in the 2016 elections but by no means the only or most pressing one.