Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2007 / 26 Tishrei, 5768
Clinton talks reform, but takes cash
By Dick Polman
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Hillary Rodham Clinton is trying to sell herself as a reformer, a new broom that will sweep away the traditional Washington chicanery. Yet her response to a fund-raising scandal in her own shop is classic old-school politics, and her determination to run a fully privatized presidential race is the antithesis of reform.
Consider the case of Norman Hsu, the onetime fugitive and confessed crook who raised $850,000 for Clinton's campaign, and who now stands freshly accused of mail fraud, wire fraud, and violation of campaign finance laws. He was a "bundler," one of those many freelance players who tap people for donations, then bundle them for delivery to a money-hungry presidential candidate. He was an unusually notorious bundler, but, in the end, he was merely a symptom of a money race that has spun out of control.
When Clinton was asked about Hsu on NBC the other day, she said this: "Well, I'm very much in favor of public financing, which is the only way to really change a lot of the problems that we have in our campaign-finance system. ... The real answer here is public financing, and I'm going to work very hard in my time in the Senate and then in the White House to try to get to a public-financing system ... because that is the answer to all of these issues that have arisen."
In other words, Clinton insists that she is "very much in favor" of providing taxpayer money to the presidential candidates - in order to thwart the influence of private money, and foil the aspirations of the bundlers - and that she will "work very hard in my time in the Senate" to effectuate that kind of reform.
To which I say, "What a crock."
During her six-year Senate career, Clinton has never once championed campaign-finance reform. In fact, her rival Barack Obama has been touting a public-financing bill designed to wean candidates away from the chase for private money; the bill was introduced in the Senate earlier this year, yet Clinton won't endorse it.
Indeed, her basic posture on this issue mirrors her husband's behavior during the `90s; when Bill was president, he repeatedly vowed to work for campaign-finance reform, but didn't lift a finger to follow through. Then he got saddled with the 1996 fund-raising scandal (with private money getting laundered through tax-exempt houses of worship, and illegal foreign money winding up at Democratic Party headquarters, among other things), culminating in 22 guilty pleas and scores of shady characters fleeing the country to avoid questioning.
Hillary Rodham Clinton's avowed support for public financing is flatly contradicted by her current conduct as a candidate. We actually have a public-financing process already, first enacted in the aftermath of Watergate: The feds dole out money to the presidential candidates for the primaries, and then to the nominees for the autumn finale. As a bipartisan panel concluded 20 years ago, "Public financing of presidential campaigns has clearly proved its worth in opening up the process, reducing the influence of individuals and groups, and virtually ending corruption in presidential election finance."
But the public-financing process has always been voluntary - and Clinton made history last winter by becoming the first candidate to drop out completely.
By refusing to participate, she is free to raise and spend as much as she wants, in both the primaries and in the general election. In quantitative terms, a private war chest, aided and abetted by the bundlers, will always trump Uncle Sam's money.
The public-financing system has been teetering for years. Presidential candidates have long complained that the federal payouts don't keep pace with their spending needs, which is why candidate George W. Bush delivered the first major blow in 1999, when he cited the need for "strategic flexibility" as his reason for privatizing his primary season campaign. He organized his bundlers and gave them names, Pioneers and Rangers.
The solution, however, has long been obvious: Update the Watergate-era reform law by sweetening the pot, by hiking the amount of public money that candidates can receive. One pending congressional proposal would triple the amount.
I see no evidence Hillary Rodham Clinton has ever crusaded for that kind of reform. Nor is that surprising. Like most other politicians, she is guided, to a great extent, by self-interest. Reform is generally seen, by both Republicans and Democrats, as a nice concept on the stump, but a liability in practice. In Clinton's case, she wants to overwhelm her Democratic rivals in the primaries, and a prodigious war chest makes the task easier; if she had agreed to take public money, she would have leveled the playing field to her own potential detriment.
It's also worth noting that her chief strategist/pollster is Mark Penn, the same guy who always told his `90s client, Bill Clinton, that campaign-finance reform would prevent Democrats from raising sufficient money. The president wound up putting the Lincoln Bedroom up for rent and essentially telling all prospective donors that their largesse was welcomed, no questions asked.
Which brings us back to Norman Hsu. He may be an extreme case, but his urge to vacuum money for Hillary Rodham Clinton was fully in tune with the operating ethos of her campaign. In the words of Josh Zaharoff, who blogs at the reform group Common Cause, "Hsu is the drifting piece of ice near the tip of the iceberg, the small chunk that broke off, one of hundreds of bundlers raising millions of dollars in an endless cycle of fund-raising. ... It won't stop unless we change the system."
Clinton's rhetoric aside, she has done virtually nothing to change the system. And she risks political damage if voters begin to suspect that her reform talk is merely a cover for politics as usual.
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Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.
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