How Hillary Could Have Won, Part I: Be Honest about Campaign Cash

December 07,  2016

Trump Attacks, Clinton Stays Mum

Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders vehemently attacked Hillary Clinton for doing what pretty much every politician does: take money from big donors and serve them instead of the public. For example, Trump hit this theme hard in the second presidential debate, at 54:30 minutes and at 1 hour and 24 minutes into the program. In a later post I will argue that Trump and Sanders owed much of their success to attacking big money in politics.

Today, I suggest that Clinton should have faced this question squarely instead of avoiding it.

Hillary stayed silent because she depended on her donors.  But her silence, like that of Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and everyone else other than Sanders and Trump, deepens the voters’ contempt for their political leaders. Is there an honest and politically useful answer to this painful question? I say yes.

An Honest Answer? She Could Have Said…

Trump claimed that he did not depend on donors and financed his own campaign. That was only partly true, but it’s almost beside the point: the Representatives and Senators he needs to support his program took the big money when they ran for office, so Trump will be just as hog-tied by special interests as Sanders or Clinton would have been had they won.

So why vote for Clinton over Trump? First, because unlike Trump she is qualified for the job.  Hillary understands the political game, and has the experience, skills and connections to get the best possible deal for the voters within the narrow limits imposed by the money-driven political system we have today.

Our Donors Are Better than Theirs

Second, the donors who give to Clinton and other Democrats are politically more liberal, or at least more centrist, than Republican donors. Unlike the Koch brothers, Democratic donors have some sympathy for Americans who are not rich. They recognize that the country cannot prosper if the needs of most Americans are ignored. It is terrible that all politicians are beholden to donors, but at least Democratic donors are more enlightened and less selfish than the G.O.P.’s donors.

Third, unlike Trump and the G.O.P., Clinton and many Democrats want to change this undemocratic system and get money out of politics. In particular, Clinton would have appointed Supreme Court justices who might reverse Citizens United and other bad decisions which block limits on campaign cash. Trump will do the opposite.

Fourth, throughout her career Hillary has shown her commitment to social justice and to improving the lot of all Americans. Working for the Children’s Defense Fund shows her sincerity, as did her attempt to establish universal health care in 1993-1994. Trump, in contrast, is an economic and sexual predator, while as a candidate he advocated more tax cuts for the wealthy.

 Honesty Was Exciting in 2016

So the honest answer Clinton could have given is also a depressing answer. It means saying that the political system is broken. One consequence of this broken system is that Hillary – like every other politician – serves two masters, the voters and the donors. This limits what she can do for the voters, and often forces her to be two-faced.

But at least Clinton dislikes this broken system and wants to fix it. And because she has the skill and experience to work the system, because her donors are better than the G.O.P.’s donors, and because her heart is in the right place, she will get the best possible result for the voters within the limits imposed by our broken system.

This bleak answer to a hard question may not strike us as inspiring, but actually it might have inspired voters, because this answer is honest. The American people, in this election year, craved honesty more than anything else. Honesty about money in politics (or the appearance of honesty in Trump’s case) helped fuel the wholly unpredicted and meteoric rise of the only candidates who generated real enthusiasm in the electorate, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.