The name of the conservative advocacy group, which five years ago won a landmark Supreme Court case governing campaign finance, has become the preferred shorthand for talking about money in politics. That decision led to the creation of the super PAC — groups that can accept contributions of any size and will spend hundreds of millions to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.
“I want to tell you, Citizens United was about me,” the Democratic presidential front-runner said last month in Iowa. “Think how that makes me feel. A lot of people don’t know that, but the backstory is eye-opening.”
After spending the first few months of her campaign bemoaning “secret, unaccountable money” in politics, Clinton is coming out Tuesday with proposals to roll back the effects of the court decision, a plan that includes pushing Congress to clamp down on secret donors whose money makes its way into elections. And a new campaign video touches on the backstory, asserting she wants to overturn the Citizens United ruling because “she knows firsthand what it’s done to our democracy.”
Clinton’s relationship with Citizens United dates to her husband’s first campaign for president.
As a small, upstart group in 1992, Citizens United published a paperback attacking Bill Clinton. The book, “Slick Willie,” was part of a yearlong campaign to derail his presidential candidacy, which included stoking stories about Whitewater, a controversy about the Clintons’ failed real estate development investments.
“We’ve been working consistently since 1992 on all things Clinton,” said David Bossie, longtime president of Citizens United. “I have an institutional knowledge of the Clintons and how the Clinton machine operates and the individuals behind it.”
It was no surprise, then, that as she began her first White House run in 2007, Citizens United made use of its Clinton archives.
The group, working with President Clinton’s estranged adviser, Dick Morris, made a 90-minute antagonistic political documentary titled: “Hillary: The Movie.” Its tagline: “If you thought you knew everything about Hillary Clinton, wait ’til you see the movie.”
Promoted as a documentary, the film is heavy on commentary from Morris and others who oppose the Clintons, including conservative commentator Ann Coulter. People in the movie repeatedly call her unfit to be president.
The plan was to release the movie at the beginning of 2008, as Democratic primary voters began choosing between Clinton and the other leading contender, Sen. Barack Obama.
But the Federal Election Commission blocked Citizens United’s plan to promote the movie in television advertisements, saying the commercials amounted to an election-time message that would require disclosure of the group’s donors to federal regulators and a message disclaimer at the end of each ad.
The group sued. While the legal case was pending, Citizens United showed “Hillary: The Movie” in a few theaters and sold it on DVD, two methods of distribution not regulated by the FEC. Meanwhile, Obama won the nomination and went on to win the White House that November.
Then the plot thickened.
Just after Election Day, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Citizens United case.
“The thing that they’re most famous for is something they never set out to do,” Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington group that advocates for stricter campaign finance rules, said of Citizens United. “They’re proud of the super PAC world that they never intended to create. Their lawsuit just became a vehicle for five justices hostile to campaign finance laws.”
In January 2010, the justices ruled 5-4 to strike down the ban on corporate and union election spending, preserving only the prohibition of those entities giving directly to candidate campaigns.
The decision touched off other court rulings and federal regulatory changes that gave rise to super PACs and boosted the impact of nonprofits — including Citizens United. Both kinds of groups not only may accept corporate and union money, but also are unbound by the $2,700-per-donor limits that candidate campaigns face.
Clinton, who’d since become secretary of state, criticized the ruling in emails with a top aide. She and the aide expressed particular concern that a foreign agent could use a corporation to sidestep prohibitions on making campaign contributions.
“This is unbelievable,” Clinton wrote to a confidant two days after the decision.
Clinton’s remarks in Iowa last month offer a preview of how Clinton might weave this personal history into a broader call for a campaign finance overhaul. She has repeatedly said she wants to get “unaccountable money” out of politics and would work to pass a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United.
She told the crowd that Citizens United wanted to use “shadowy money” to promote its movie about her — a film she said was “no ‘Field of Dreams’ or ‘Bridges of Madison County.'”
“They took aim at me, but they ended up damaging our entire democracy,” she said. “We can’t let them pull that same trick again.” She added: “Now I’m in their crosshairs again.”
Indeed, Citizens United is at work now on “Hillary: The Sequel.” The group has prospered since the ruling that bears its name, having raised at least $50 million through its chief nonprofit, tax records show, and millions more through a super PAC and traditional political committee.
It has filed Freedom of Information requests and sued to gain access to emails from Clinton and her top staff while she was secretary of state.
The goal, Bossie said, is to release a movie next summer, before the election. And what if, as in 2008, Clinton is defeated in the Democratic primary contest?
“Although we will be disappointed for a very short moment, with all that work down the drain,” he said, “we’ll ultimately be very happy if she is not the nominee.”