By Zach Carter
WASHINGTON — Democrats are fuming over presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s defense of the millions of dollars she made giving speeches to Wall Street. Her latest effort to push back against critics undermines years of Democratic claims about the influence of money in politics, invoking a central tenet of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
In last week’s head-to-head debate with Bernie Sanders, Clinton accused the Vermont senator of deploying a “very artful smear” against her by bringing up the $675,000 she received for speaking at Goldman Sachs.
“I really don’t think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you,” Clinton said to Sanders. “If you got something to say, say it directly. But you will never find that I have ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation I’ve received.”
The audience booed Clinton over the exchange. She also raised a lot of eyebrows beyond the debate hall.
“I can see how in the heat of hand-to-hand political combat, that might be an appealing defense,” says Kurt Walters, a campaign manager with the anti-corruption group Rootstrikers, referring to Clinton’s “smear” line. “But just like theCitizens United line of thinking, it ignores all of the other ways that money influences politics beyond the explicit exchange of cash for a vote.”
Like Clinton, the Citizens United relies on a narrow definition of corruption as straightforward bribery — a literal trade of money for votes. Previous Supreme Court decisions, like McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, had applied a broader standard than Citizens United — one in which money can exercise an “undue influence” over policymaking, even absent explicit quid pro quo deals.
And while Democrats have long acknowledged that a check from a big donor might not result in a politician switching her position on an issue, they have argued that campaign contributions can buy a phone call or a meeting in which a donor can make his case — opportunities unavailable to mere voters.
“The argument that contributions don’t affect politicians’ conduct is contrary to my experience,” says former Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.).
Fundraisers give donors a chance to hobnob with candidates and discuss issues and ideas important to them. That has an impact on the way politicians see the world and how to solve its problems.
“Rich people have the opportunity to get access,” millionaire Clinton donor Bernard Schwartz explained to Bloomberg’s Max Abelson.
Clinton’s paid speeches only compound the problem, since the money goes not to a campaign account or a super PAC, but to the candidate herself (Clinton has directed some speech revenue to charities, including the Clinton Foundation.) But like a fundraiser, the speeches also provide a well-heeled audience access to Clinton and a chance to ask her questions.
“Clinton, like our Supreme Court, ignores thousands of years of human experience in how money corrupts politics not just through quid pro quos, but also by shaping attitudes,” says David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning economics writer.