Strange as it may seem, the strongest Republican presidential candidate will make fixing the corrupt system of influence in Washington a central commitment of their administration.
The overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, has long dodged claims of influence peddling. Those claims are now surfacing more vigorously, as a book by Peter Schweizer fuels new streams of inquiry into the relationship between the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising and the behavior of the State Department.
It’s too early to know whether any of these charges have merit. My bias is to believe they do not. But whether or not they ultimately stick, they reinforce a wide range of criticism that, over the course of her and her husband’s career, have made it hard to believe that Hillary Clinton is a candidate deeply committed to ending the outsized influence of private power in the public’s business.
This isn’t Hillary Clinton’s fault. It’s her fate, as these stories just confirm a view that most Americans already have about most politicians, whether on the Right or Left—that their first focus is on a favored few, even as they work hard to appear focused on the rest.
Clinton’s recent promise to focus at least part of her campaign on the “dysfunctional system” of our government is a welcome response. But it may well be too late to pierce our veil of cynicism.
The Clintons have lived the life of American nobility. Privilege—hard fought and at great price—is now part of the brand. In the face of these charges, whether ultimately proven or not, it will be difficult to make believable the idea that responsiveness to privilege first is not the norm.
True, Nixon went to China, and Johnson passed civil rights legislation. But neither ran campaigns on the promise that they would be fundamentally different from how most had come to see them. A campaign is not the time to reinvent yourself—as Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush (41) both discovered.
If Clinton is not the nominee, then the argument for a Republican reformer is even stronger. If she is defeated in the primary, it will be because this skepticism has boiled over in the Democratic Party, as well. The defeat of Clinton would give the victor the air of an unstoppable reformer, just at a time when Americans are increasingly desperate for someone to address “corruption in the federal government.” (That was issue #2 on Gallup’s Top 10 for the next president in 2012).
The only way the GOP could check that momentum would be to field a reformer of its own. Otherwise, the party risks a rout if the nominee succeeds convincing voters that a Democratic administration would be the Waterloo for K Street lobbyists.
So how could a Republican take up this issue? Isn’t the Republican Party the party of big money?
Liberals like to paint Republicans as married to money. And indeed, the party has done much to complete that sketch. Certainly the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a strong proponent of lifting all limits to campaign contributions while removing whatever remaining regulations there are on the way campaigns are funded. And the Dave Brat wing of the Republican Party has already effectively charged its leadership with living more on Wall Street than on Main Street, claiming Eric Cantor’s scalp in the process.
But within the Grand Old Party grassroots, there is a strong sense that crony capitalism is a real problem that is only compounded by our current system of campaign finance. Moreover, there is a sense that these cronies are not necessarily conservatives.
In New Hampshire, candidate Lindsey Graham recently said “We’re going to lose a democracy if we don’t have some control over the money. The most influential people in the country are gonna be the ones with the most money.”
The New Hampshire Rebellion—a New Hampshire based grassroots group organizing to press candidates on the issue of corruption—is collecting a long list of similar views by most of Graham’s potential competitors.
These candidates are responding to a well-developed sense that something has gone off the rails in the way we fund campaigns in America. And it has led a former United States Senate candidate in the New Hampshire Republican primary, Jim Rubens, to propose an interesting hybrid between reform and deregulation, which might well prove to be the model for a reformer on the right.
In Rubens’ plan, the first fifty dollars of everyone’s taxes would be rebated to voters to pay for vouchers that could be used to fund political campaigns. But the plan also includes a provision to remove all limits on campaign contributions, so candidates for Congress could choose whether to fund their campaigns with small contributions or large.
This change would kill the SuperPAC (who wants to give to a .org when you can give to a candidate directly), but public funding (which is what these vouchers are) would empower candidates who wish to run free of big money.
Candidates could thus choose whether to fund with the few or the many. And the public in turn would choose whether to elect candidates who fund with the few or they many.
Rubens’ idea gives a reform Republican a chance to stand strong on the side of deregulation, while, at the same time, offering voters a glimpse of a system not dominated by large contributors. Of course, it’s not clear whether candidates would opt into small or large contributions, but Rubens’ proposal would at least give them the choice.
And in a presidential race in which voters (especially in New Hampshire) are increasingly disgusted by the overwhelming role that money is playing in politics, this innovative hybrid could be a way for Republicans to reignite the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, just at a time when America has finally had it with the modern version of Boss Tweed.
As a Democrat, I take comfort in recognizing just how unlikely it is that the Republicans will see the return—to them and to the Republic—that would come from their rediscovering their own reform roots.
To hear some of them speak, it’s as if they don’t even recognize that the savior of the Republican Right—Ronald Reagan—would never have left California but for the public funding of elections. No elected official in American political history benefited more from public funding than Reagan, who ran three national campaigns on the public’s dime.
And thus too did the Reagan wing of the Republican Party also benefit from public funding.
All of that is of course forgotten now, with the leadership of the Republican Party seemingly committed to the idea of the Sheldon Adelson Primary. But that doesn’t change the basic facts: that never has the Right had a stronger reason to raise the reformer flag.