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01 February, 2016

The Clinton System

Simon Head

On January 17, in the final Democratic debate before the primary season begins, Bernie Sanders attacked Hillary Clinton for her close financial ties to Wall Street, something he had avoided in his campaigning up to that moment: “I don’t take money from big banks….You’ve received over $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs in one year,” he said. Sanders’s criticisms coincided with recent reports that the FBI might be expanding its inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s emails to include her ties to big donors while serving as secretary of state. But a larger question concerns how Hillary and Bill Clinton have built their powerful donor machine, and what its existence might mean for Hillary Clinton’s future conduct as American president. The following investigation, drawing on many different sources, is intended to give a full sense of the facts about Clinton and not to endorse a particular candidate in the coming election.

It’s an axiom of Washington politics in the age of Citizens United and Super PACs that corporations and the very rich can channel almost unlimited amounts of money to candidates for high office to pave the way for later favors. According to the public service website Open Secrets, in the 2016 campaign, as of October, in addition to direct campaign contributions, Jeb Bush had at his disposal $103 million in “outside money”—groups such as PACs and Super PACs and so called “dark money” organizations that work on behalf of a particular candidate. Ted Cruz had $38 million in such funds, Marco Rubio $17 million, and Chris Christie $14 million.

Yet few have been as adept at exploiting this big-money politics as Bill and Hillary Clinton. In the 2016 campaign, as of October, Hillary Clinton had raised $20 million in “outside” money, on top of $77 million in direct campaign contributions—the highest in direct contributions of any candidate at the time. But she and her husband have other links to big donors, and they go back much further than the current election cycle. What stands out about what I will call the Clinton System is the scale and complexity of the connections involved, the length of time they have been in operation, the presence of former president Bill Clinton alongside Hillary as an equal partner in the enterprise, and the sheer magnitude of the funds involved.

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