Legalized bribery in the US presidential race

Hillary Clinton has raised more money than any other candidate in the 2016 presidential race. Is Hillary Clinton corrupted by money? Sure. More corrupt than most of her other rivals for the presidency? I’m not sure. Her Republican rivals are even more overt in their pandering to wealthy donors than Hillary. (I am going to refer to Hillary Clinton as “Hillary” to distinguish her from her husband, which her campaign literature also does. Likewise, I will refer to Bernie Sanders as “Bernie,” because his campaign literature refers to him that way.) Hillary goes to a lot of fund raisers attended by millionaires, but hasn’t made special trips to beg funding from a single billionaire, like the Republican candidates have made pilgrimages to visit the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, etc. Nonetheless, I don’t doubt that Hillary would make such a trip if there were any billionaires willing to fund her campaign. She reportedly used to pander to Donald Trump when she was the senator from New York.

The fact of the matter is that American politics has become a form of legalized bribery. The Citizens United decision has made this bribery more overt, but that Supreme Court decision is just part of the growing venality of politics. A recent study which examined 1400 policies concluded that on the vast majority of issues, Washington passes legislation which favors the wealthy, regardless of whether it is favored by the majority of Americans or not.

I think that most wealthy interests in the US would prefer a Republican to a Democrat, but they know that Democrat like Hillary Clinton will not threaten their interests, despite the rhetoric that she is forced to employ on the campaign trail to garner votes. They know that she is willing to play the game of dirty politics, so their money will buy influence in her administration. Moreover, they can read the polls which show that on the majority of issues, the American populace is closer to the Democrats than the Republicans and more Americans self-identify as “liberal” than “conservative”. Big money interests know that the safest bet at this point is to finance a Democrat, even if they would prefer a Republican.

There are a few interests such as the fossil-fuels lobby, the Israeli lobby, and the guns lobby which would definitely prefer a Republican, but they are probably willing to hedge their bets and give some money to Hillary because they know that the Clintons have a long history of not being too hard on them compared to many other politicians in the Democratic Party.

It is telling that that the financial sector, which is the largest political donor, has ponied up so much money for Hillary. Citigroup and Merrill-Lynch, which are the number 1 and number 2 donors to the Hillary campaign, know that financial reform is a popular policy among the rank and file of the Democratic party, whereas a Republican president is unlikely to pass for financial reforms like Dodd Frank or do much to enforce them. In fact, the Republicans in congress are currently pushing to eliminate Title II of the Dodd-Frank bill, so a Republican presidency would certainly be better for the big banks, but the financial sector knows that it can bribe moderate Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to convince them to buck the general will of their party and prevent real financial reform. In fact, it can be argued that the financial reforms which the Democrats did pass after the financial collapse of 2007-8 actually helped the big banks since it was harder for the little banks to comply with the costly regulations of Dodd-Frank.

At this point, it is a crap shoot who will be the Republican nominee, so it appears that the big money interests are holding back their funding. Once a clear front runner appears, the Republican candidate will probably receive the lion’s share of money and Hillary will be outspent. Still, it appears that many big money interests are hedging their bets by also giving to Hillary, so she is the biggest single recipient of donations at this point in the race.

What makes this issue interesting, however, is the fact that several of the presidential candidates are talking about the corruption of money in politics. Bernie Sanders has made campaign finance a central plank in his candidacy, vowing that he will not nominate any Supreme Court justice who is will not vote to overturn the Citizens United decision. Unlike every other candidate, he has declared that he does not want a Political Action Committee (PAC) and he publicly touts how small the average donation he receives to emphasize the point that he is not beholden to wealthy interests. He argues that we need to move toward public funding of elections to get money out of politics.

On the right, there are two candidates which appear at least superficially to go against the growing corruption of money in politics. Rand Paul does not have a billionaire backing his campaign and has even failed to do the kind of personalized wooing which is required to obtain them. Many commentators even say that his campaign is dead in the water because he hasn’t lined up a billionaire to support him. In Paul’s case, however, his failure to woo a billionaire appears to be less of an ideological choice, than a personal preference. It is reported that on several occasions he chose to spend time with his family rather than go to meetings with billionaires funders. As a Libertarian, Paul would be ideologically opposed to the state limiting the amount of money that billionaires and wealthy corporations can invest in the political system, but he hasn’t been as willing to pander to get that money as some of his rivals.

The one Republican candidate who is willing to talk about the corruption of money in politics is Donald Trump. He talks about how he has given money to many politicians to obtain favors, but he doesn’t want money from anyone, so he isn’t beholden to any special interest. He claims that unlike the other politicians who want to be president, he will be tough on special interests and do what is best for the American people. He uses the example of the 2 billion dollar automotive plant Ford is planning to build in Mexico. He claims that he would call up the president of Ford and threaten to impose a tax on Ford cars imported into the US, so that Ford would be forced to build its cars in the US. According to Trump, he can do this (in violation of the NAFTA treaty), because he is so rich that no special interest can buy him.

Nonetheless, a vote for Donald Trump or Rand Paul isn’t a vote for campaign finance reform, but rather a vote for an idiosyncratic candidate who appears less venal than their rivals in the Republican party. Neither Trump nor Paul have proposed any policy that would reduce the corruption of money in politics, so their appeal is strictly personal. In the case of Paul, it can be argued that a libertarian won’t give any favors to a special interest, but a libertarian also won’t enact any regulation to control a special interest. In the case of Trump, he might be willing to fight for the American worker as he claims, but any fighting will be done in the form of individual calls to corporate heads and backroom negotiations, rather than legislation which applies equally across the board. At any rate, few pundits think that either Paul or Trump has a real shot at winning the presidency.

In the case of Bernie Sanders, however, he does have a credible opportunity to win the presidency if he can win the Democratic Party nomination. If Bernie can break out of the white liberal enclave which always supports insurgent candidates like Bill Bradley in 2000, Howard Dean in 2004, and Barak Obama in 2008, then Bernie can win the Democratic primary. Bernie already polls very high among better-educated white liberals, but the question is whether Bernie can attract the Black and Hispanic vote and the more socially conservative blue-collar vote where Bernie currently trails Hillary. In my humble opinion, Bernie has a good shot of attracting votes from these different groups as he becomes better known among the Democratic rank-and-file.

At an event organized by La Raza, where all the Democratic party candidates were invited to speak, Bernie received the loudest applause of any of the candidates. Bernie has received some negative press because his speeches in Arizona and Seattle were disrupted by Black Lives Matter activists, but I actually think that the BLM protests may help Bernie in the long run. After the Arizona protest at NetRoots 16, Sanders had conversations with Symone Sanders, about how to frame his campaign for economic inequality as a parallel problem of racial inequality. At his speech at the SCLC in New Orleans, Bernie talked about how his campaign continues in the tradition of Martin Luther King, when he died campaigning for higher wages for sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968. As a member of CORE and SNCC as a student in the 1960s at the University of Chicago, Bernie has a more credible history as a campaigner for black civil rights than any other candidate. The difference is that Hillary has already lined up the support of many major black and Hispanic political leaders, so Bernie has a hard row to hoe, but he is clearly trying to win the  minority vote. The recent appointment of Symone Sanders, a young black activist for criminal reform from Omaha, as his national press spokesperson, shows are real willingness to reach out to the black community.

Unlike almost most other candidates for the presidency, Bernie can talk credibly about campaign finance reform without appearing to be a hypocrit. In part, he is able to do this, because he hails from a unique state where it is possible to win without a lot of money. As the independent senator from Vermont, Bernie has spent years crisscrossing a state with a population of just 500,000, so that almost every voter in Vermont has had personal contact with him. Vermont, however, is a very unique place. It has the highest percentage of whites of any state in the nation, one of the highest percentage of people who self-identify as “liberal”, and has the lowest rate of church attendance in the country. More importantly, the state has a tradition of town halls and the voters expect to talk to their representatives in person about policies. It is the kind of state where  dirty attack ads, smear campaigns and the politics of personality don’t work, so having a lot of money won’t buy you an election. It is the kind of state where someone like Bernie Sanders can win by talking about policies and without much pandering to special interests, because the special interests in the state like the big dairy farms aren’t that wealthy.

Bernie believes passionately in public financing of elections and is already talking about passing a law which will force PACs to identify who gives them money, so billionaires can’t anonymously fund dirty campaign ads. Bernie represents a real threat to the big banks, who he promises to break up. His proposed tax on stock transactions and the reimplementation of the Glass-Steagall Act will cut profits dramatically in the financial sector. Likewise, Bernie promises to destroy the medical insurance industry by implementing a Medicare For All program. Bernie’s proposed carbon fee-and-dividend will decimate the fossil fuel industry in the long term. His agenda of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, 10 days of paid vacation per year for all full time workers and 3 months of paid family and medical leave for all full time workers will have a real impact on corporate profits. His agenda of raising income tax on the wealthy and redistributing wealth back to the lower classes is not just empty rhetoric to gain votes, but a real threat to the interests of the 1%. So far they haven’t taken Bernie’s candidacy very seriously, because few pundits think he can win, but my reading of the polling numbers shows me that Bernie can win as his name and his agenda become better known. A recent CNN poll shows that only 50% of Americans even know who Bernie Sanders is, but among those who do, more have a favorable than unfavorable opinion about him, whereas more have an unfavorable than favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Donald Trump and Scott Walker. In other words, Bernie has a very good chance of winning the presidency the more his name and his agenda gets publicized, which is likely to happen as the presidential race progresses. (See my earlier post on political polling for more analysis.)

If Bernie continues to rise in the polls, however, and the wealthy interests start to get scared, we can expect to see Hillary’s campaign to be inundated with money, not just to hedge their bets, but to actively fight Bernie. Don’t be surprised if the financial sector, the fossil-fuel industry and the medical insurance companies start dumping money into Hillary’s campaign. The problem is that Hillary can’t turn to dirty campaign ads to smear Bernie, because that strategy will alienate most Democrats and it will especially alienate the Bernie supporters, who may decide to not campaign for Hillary in the general election. What this means is that Hillary will have excellent funding for her ground campaign with a well-paid staff to get out her vote in the primary, but Sanders still might win because he has so many passionate volunteers so he might be able to match Hillary on the ground in the get out the vote campaign.

Where it could really get ugly is in the general election. If Bernie wins the Democratic nomination for the presidency, we can predict that the TV, radio and internet will be deluged with dirty attack ads smearing him. Every weathy special interest in America will dump money on the Republican candidate in quantities that we have never seen before in a presidential election, because Bernie’s agenda could cost corporate America billions of dollars in profits. They will will want to see Bernie resoundingly defeated. Bernie’s angry rhetoric denouncing the “greed of Wall Street” and the buying of elections by billionaires like the Koch brothers will scare the 1% in ways that no other candidate might.

Expect to see images of the US turning into the USSR. Expect to see ads playing on antisemite prejudices and calling him an atheist. Expect to see photos of Bernie in the 1970s as a lazy, hippy bum living on unemployment checks. Expect to see images of Bernie as the man who had a son out of wedlock, questioning his family values. Bernie will be tarred and feathered as as a wild haired maniac whose socialism will bankrupt the US.

The dirty attack ads will be less effective against Bernie than against Hillary, because everyone knows that Bernie is honest, so they will find less purchase against his character. People who are scared of the word “socialism” will have already made up their mind long ago, so the dirty attack ads will only deepen their antagonism to Bernie, but in a presidential race, both candidates get plenty of media time to explain their agenda and many Americans will listen to Bernie’s idea of free college tuition, Medicare for All, a $15 dollar minimum wage and 10 days of paid vacation and decide that Bernie’s Socialism doesn’t sound so bad. In other words, the dirty attack ads might not work that well against Bernie, but they will convince many people that money in politics has gotten out of hand and it needs to be reigned in. In response to the dirty attack ads, Bernie will talk about how money is corrupting American politics and how the 1% is buying elections, and his message will have even greater resonance among the American people, because they can see evidence of it every time they turn on the TV or radio. If Bernie manages to get to the general election, the ugliness of the attack ads and the deluge of money against him will probably create an overwhelming consensus among the American people that we have to get money out of politics to preserve any semblance of democracy. That alone is a good reason to vote for Bernie, regardless of any other issue.

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