Could There Be A Grand Bargain on Campaign Finance?

Forget a constitutional amendment, a President Hillary Clinton and a GOP Congress could agree on reform.

August 3, 2016

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Last fall, Donald Trump was bragging that he couldn't be bought by special interests because he was funding his own campaign. And Bernie Sanders was railing against big-money politics as "legalized bribery." Even Hillary Clinton portrayed herself as a campaign reformer by embracing a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

Some of this was a shuck -- especially Trump's claims to be entirely self-funding when he was mostly loaning money to his campaign and had an oversized "Donate" button on his website. And Clinton never explained the hypnotic magic that would convince two-thirds of a Republican-dominated Congress to send a constitutional amendment to the states. Or how she would then get around the pesky reality that the GOP controls both chambers in 30 state legislatures.

Even against the backdrop of the ugliness that has been a hallmark of this election cycle since Trump threw his ego into the ring, there was the frail hope that the role of money in politics would be a major motif of the fall 2016 campaign. With populist uprisings in both parties, surely Super PACs would become a tempting bipartisan target. 

That notion turned out to be as wrong as all the political insiders and TV pundits who were once loudly insisting that the GOP nominee had to be Jeb Bush (all that money), Marco Rubio (all that political talent) or Scott Walker (all that experience in tough races).

In his apocalyptic, mourning-in-America address to the Republican Convention, Trump dropped all claims that he was battling the special interests by funding his own campaign. In fact, despite the logorrhea of his Fidel-Castro-like speech marathon, the former reality-show host devoted exactly 27 words to the topic: "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens."

Hillary Clinton at the Philadelphia convention handled the issue in predictable fashion -- as a two-sentence sop to Sanders' supporters: "That's why we need to appoint Supreme Court justices who will get money out of politics...And we'll pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United." By the way, she parsimoniously used one fewer word than the verbose Trump employed in Cleveland.

Democrats have always seized the moral high ground when it comes to money in politics. Sometimes this stance requires a certain factual flimflam -- as when Democrats ritually denounce the Koch Brothers but ignore liberal Super PAC barons like Tom Steyer. In Philadelphia, the High Roller scene at hotels like the Ritz-Carlton was lovingly chronicled. Just walking across the lobby, as I can testify, ran the risk of being steered into a major donor reception by glad-handers. These young women with name tags (I never saw a man in the role) were the upscale versions of the pullers-in who stood in front of Lower East Side clothing shops a century ago aggressively attracting customers.

Most Democrats -- aside from the no-surrender Sanders diehards -- don't seem to mind Clinton's embrace of big-money fund-raising even as she's denouncing Citizens United. At a time when Barack Obama is calling the Republican nominee "unfit to serve as president," it is difficult for liberals to become too worked up about any legal fund-raising strategy to defeat Donald Trump.

If the post-convention polls hold and Hillary Clinton becomes the 45th president, the issue of money in politics will again make it onto center stage sometime in 2017. Maybe Clinton will actually try to push her impossible-dream constitutional amendment. Or perhaps the eventual appointment of Merrick Garland (or someone else) to fill the Antonin Scalia seat on the Supreme Court will revive talk of reversing Citizens United.

If the 2016 election becomes a blow out, the Republicans will face another rendezvous with reality. How long will the tattered leadership of the GOP cling to the illusion that reliance on Super PACs and uncharted "dark money” gives the GOP an advantage in races for the White House and Congress?

Smart Republicans -- chastened by their Faustian bargain with Trump -- will recall how little Jeb Bush gained from more than $100 million in Super PAC swag. They may also realize that dependence on outside money men like Sheldon Adelson eroded the power of the Republican Party as an institution -- and left it ripe for Trump's hostile takeover.

I am suggesting (and, yes, this reflects uncharacteristic optimism) that the ingredients could be in place for some kind of post-election grand bargain on campaign finance. Republicans would get significantly higher limits on individual contributions as long as they are made to candidates or parties. And Democrats would get not only full disclosure of billionaire donors, but also strict regulation on coordination between Super PACs and campaigns.

Whatever happens in November, 2016 will be remembered as the year that traditional politics collapsed like a beach shack caught in a hurricane. But sometimes out of political debacles like Watergate comes the impetus for reform. Here's hoping.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist for Roll Call who is covering his tenth presidential campaign. He has also worked for two newspapers (USA Today and The Washington Post), two news weeklies (Time and Newsweek), two monthlies (Esquire and The Washington Monthly), and two online magazines (Salon and Slate). He has also been a columnist for Yahoo! News. He is the author of "One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In," a chronicle of the early skirmishing for the presidential nomination, published by PublicAffairs in 2003. Shapiro teaches a political science seminar on the news media and the 2012 campaign at Yale. And he is working on a book about his con-man great uncle who cheated Hitler. He can be reached at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.