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Why Hillary Is Really Pushing Campaign Finance Reform

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Why has Hillary Clinton taken up campaign-finance reform as a big issue in her presidential campaign? Some people say she is trying to inoculate herself from attacks on her own campaign's prodigious fund-raising and on contributions to the Clinton Foundation. Others say it must be because campaign finance is emerging as a populist issue for 2016. 

I doubt either is the main incentive. The most logical reason for Clinton to be talking about campaign finance right now has to do with her unusual position as the presumptive Democratic nominee more than a year before swing voters are paying attention. 

In theory, the best strategy for all candidates this far from Election Day is to be as vague as possible. Commiting to specific policies on Iran or health care or the economy risks the possibility that events may undermine whatever a candidate says now.

But most candidates are facing some opposition at this point for their party's nomination, and they (in this case, the Republicans) have little choice. General-election swing voters may not be paying attention in April 2015, but many of the people who choose their party's nominee are. Party actors who care most about nominations want specific positions spelled out as proof that the candidate will be a reliable ally if elected. At the same time, candidates who hold nearly identical positions have to find new angles in their policies to differentiate themselves.

Those incentives don't exist for a candidate who has virtually wrapped up the nomination already. Yet Clinton can’t quite avoid talking about her positions altogether. The norms of campaigning demand a platform.

Campaign-finance reform is a safe subject. It's hard to see how events will make current talking points on it look silly or embarrassing in the future. Restricting money in politics is broadly popular (especially with a lot reporters and their editors), even if it isn't something that will sway a lot of votes in the general election next year. 

And it's a low-cost way of appealing to Democrats who tend to support insurgent candidates -- that is, those who make a stink about money in politics. It's a lot less risky issue for Clinton than engaging in antiwar oratory or committing to some specific economic proposals.

Of course, Clinton may simply care about campaign-finance reform. Or there could be some other calculation at work. We aren't privy to the decision-making inside her campaign. All we know is that she has incentives to discuss it now.

Expect to hear more on this and on other subjects that fit the same profile, all summer and into the fall. Clinton will eventually have to give serious speeches on foreign policy, the economy and plenty of other things. But she’s likely to put that off as long as possible, just as she delayed the beginning of the open phase of her candidacy. 

  1. That's bad news for party groups that want to impose constraints on Clinton for the future. But she has presumably assured enough of them about her reliability, or she wouldn't be in such a commanding position within the  Democratic Party.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net