by DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. & DARIN BARTRAM
February 9, 2016 in the National Review Online
Few politicians have railed more loudly against the Supreme Court’s 2010 key First Amendment decision, Citizens United v. FEC, than the star of the Citizens United–produced political documentary (Hillary: The Movie) that provided the factual basis for the decision. But forget about the kind of independent advocacy at issue in that case or even highly regulated campaign contributions. At last Thursday’s debate against Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton grandly asserted that she could not be bought or influenced even by huge amounts of money flowing directly into her own pocket from mega-corporations such as Goldman Sachs. She angrily denied the corrupting influence of money in politics when she is the one cashing the check. Having done that, on what possible basis can Secretary Clinton oppose the kind of independent speech unleashed by Citizens United?
It has become a matter of Democrat orthodoxy that Citizens United has been a disaster, because it enables groups of citizens, including those organized in the corporate form, to freely engage in political speech. To many Democrats, that is tantamount to buying elections and politicians. Secretary Clinton’s opposition to Citizens United is well known and a central plank of her presidential campaign. Just last month, in noting the six-year anniversary of that decision, she accused the Court of having “transformed our politics by allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.”
While slamming the Supreme Court’s decision, Hillary Clinton has pledged something that most presidential candidates shy away from: a litmus test for future Supreme Court nominees if she is elected, to ensure they would vote to overturn Citizens United. She has also endorsed partially repealing the First Amendment to enable the government to restrict political speech for a variety of purposes, including the alleged need to equalize the ability of diverse voices to participate in democratic governance. Presumably, films like Hillary: The Movie wouldn’t make the cut.
The Supreme Court in Citizens United concluded that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political advocacy by corporations, labor unions, and associations, because such speech expenditures do not pose a threat of quid pro quo corruption or even the credible appearance of corruption. They simply expand the marketplace of ideas. The decision led to the establishment of super PACs, regulated groups that can receive unlimited donations from individuals and corporations to spend on political and policy advocacy. It also permitted well-established national advocacy groups — whether the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club — to become energetically engaged in political speech and debates.
It would perhaps be unreasonable to ask Clinton to live under the campaign-finance regulations she claims to favor rather the ones that exist today and under which her Republican opponents operate. (To be sure, Senator Bernie Sanders has managed to nearly match her in the polls notwithstanding his lack of a quasi-official super PAC.) Not surprisingly, Sanders has distinguished himself from Clinton by noting her cozy relationship with Wall Street firms and repeatedly called attention to the huge speaking fees Clinton has received from Goldman Sachs and others, as well as the millions of dollars in campaign and super-PAC contributions from the finance and pharmaceutical sectors that support her candidacy.
At the Thursday debate, Clinton clearly had had enough. She said that Sanders was engaging in a “very artful smear” when he repeatedly highlighted these fees and contributions. She accused him of insinuating that someone who “ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought.” Clinton also very forcefully said, “You will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation I ever received.”
By asserting that she can take money from these groups, including honorary fees to spend as she sees fit for personal rather then political benefit, and that she has not been even slightly influenced by all this largess, she has disavowed the corrupting influence of money in politics far beyond anything contained in Citizens United. Money corrupts the typical politician, she seems to be claiming; but she alone is a person of such moral probity that, like Marlow venturing into the jungle in Heart of Darkness, she can escape unchanged — even when companies such as Goldman Sachs are cutting checks to her personal account. Does Clinton honestly believe it would be more corrupting if, rather than paying off Clinton directly, Goldman instead sponsored TV ads in support of her candidacy? Of course not — the very idea is ludicrous.
We will probably never know whether Secretary Clinton’s assertion at the debate of Sanders’s “very artful smear” was rehearsed, or spontaneous. What is beyond doubt is that Secretary Clinton just gutted the basis for her long opposition to the Citizens United decision.
David B. Rivkin Jr. served at the Department of Justice and the White House Counsel Office during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. Darin Bartram practices constitutional law in the Washington, D.C., area.