Amidst all of the talk about the government shutdown recently, there has been one story that has largely escaped the press corps’ radar. Last week, CNN and NBC announced that they would no longer be producing programs focusing on Hillary Clinton. While Republicans and the Clintons might be happy about the development, the rest of us should be more wary for what this means for the 2016 elections and beyond, especially as it relates to campaign finance.
Back in August, the Republican National Committee voted to ban CNN and NBC from broadcasting 2016 primary debates in retaliation for the networks’ plans to highlight the life of the former Secretary of State and First Lady. Many suspected that the networks backed out because of pressure from Republicans concerned about potential bias, but the reality is more complex. In a Huffington Post blog post last Monday, Charles Ferguson, the director of the CNN documentary on Clinton, wrote that he was pulling out of the project because of stonewalling from Clinton confidants and difficulties obtaining archival footage.
While Clinton might be the best presidential candidate for the Democrats in 2016, underlying this news is an unpleasant reminder of her potential liabilities. In his blog post, Ferguson certainly insinuates this by pointing to potential problem spots such as Clinton’s past work with Walmart and the Saudi government’s extensive donations to the newly renamed Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
Between the momentum surrounding her candidacy and the fact that there are few potential candidates with a comparable rÃ©sumÃ©, Clinton might be able to mitigate the impact of these potential controversies if she runs. However, as the 2008 primaries keenly demonstrate, the narrative surrounding her candidacy on its own will not be enough to counter potential criticism.
In order to avoid being plagued by controversies, Clinton will inevitably need to spend hundreds of millions dollars on advertising in order to deflect attacks from Democrats and Republicans alike. But by attempting to spend her way out of potential image problems, it begs the question, what impact will her candidacy have on the future of campaign finance? In the time since her last run for office, the financial realities of running for president have changed significantly due, in no small part, to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The outcome opened the floodgates to seemingly unlimited political spending.
During the last election cycle, the Center for Responsive Politics found that approximately $6.29 billion was spent on federal elections. Of that $6.29 billion, close to $2.62 billion was spent on the presidential election alone. That number represents a slight decrease from the $2.8 billion spent in 2008, however, the devil is in the details. Whereas the last election featured a candidate running against an incumbent, the 2008 election featured two candidates vying for an open-seat. Political scientists generally view open-seat elections as more attractive to donors than those involving incumbents since incumbents are viewed as having an inherent electoral advantage.
Between Clinton’s potential liabilities and the fact that 2016 will be the first open-seat election in eight years, it is easy to see how 2016 could be the most expensive presidential election ever. But it is not right to pin blame on Clinton for expected rises in campaign spending since there is a way of dealing with the issue before the election begins in earnest.
With the conservative composition of Congress and the Supreme Court not being likely to change any time soon, it is understandable to be pessimistic about a renewed discussion about Citizens United before 2016. However, hope may lie elsewhere within the federal government.
Back in 2011, the White House floated the idea of issuing an executive order requiring companies to disclose political contributions made in excess of $5,000 in the two years prior to any bids on government contracts. The order would have applied to contributions made by the companies themselves as well as those made by officers and directors affiliated with the companies.
Why the White House never followed through and issued this executive order remains a mystery. Indeed, disclosure may not appear to be the most effective way of dealing with the issue of campaign finance reform in contrast to expenditure limits or taxes on contributions. But it has to be recognized that Citizens United is here to stay for the time being and whether or not we agree with the decision, we must work within its limits. With the likely flood of money in 2016, even a marginal attempt to tackle the repercussions of the decision is better than nothing.
With Clinton’s recent spate of speeches and her positioning on issues like Syria and gay marriage, many think that it is all but certain that Clinton is going to run in 2016. However, what goes for certainty in D.C. changes from day to day. Some may argue then that engaging in hypotheticals about Clinton’s impact on campaign finance is a pointless endeavor. Inevitably though, in a post-Citizens United environment, if Clinton does not precipitate a rise in campaign spending, some other candidate with similar liabilities will. To wait for political conditions to be ripe enough to revisit campaign finance reform neglects the realities of presidential politics as well as the tools at liberals’ disposal for mitigating the impact of Citizens United.
Alex Nathanson is a College senior from Coral Springs, Fla. He is Co-President of Young Democrats at Emory.
Cartoon by Priyanka Pai