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Hillary Clinton: the 'Citizens United' candidate

Era of super PACs, unlimited fundraising a boon to potential presidential contender

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An oft-forgotten footnote to the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision is that it all began with a low-budget film about Hillary Clinton.

Now today, on the fourth anniversary of Citizens United — a case that helped transmute the nation's campaign financing system into one of unlimited spending and endless electioneering — Clinton may become its beneficiary-in-chief, poised to cash in like no other political candidate has before.

Consider that the Ready for Hillary super PAC has already raised millions of dollars from tens of thousands of donors and plans to transfer its unparalleled resources to a future Clinton campaign machine. Another super PAC, the previously pro-Barack Obama Priorities USA Action that raised more than $79 million during the last election cycle, has begun transitioning into a Clinton shadow operation.

This, for a presidential candidate in Clinton who's not yet one — and may not be for a year or more, if she runs at all.

Compounding Clinton's campaign cash intrigue is her incongruent record of supporting measures that would curb the influence of big money in politics.

She served as a co-sponsor of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001 and voted for the bill that ultimately passed in 2002. She's called for public financing of campaigns, saying in 2007, "when I'm president, I'm going to see if there is a way to do just that." But she also helped usher in the demise of the existing presidential public financing system during her presidential run in 2008. She's also endured more than a couple campaign finance scandals during her political career.

The Center for Public Integrity spoke with three people who've closely intersected with Clinton in recent years — either as friend or foe — and who offer insight into the effect a potential Clinton candidacy is already having on the nation's never-ending debate over the way elections are funded:

David Bossie, Citizens United president:

People who appear in "Hillary: The Movie" collectively describe the former U.S. senator and secretary of state as a liar and European socialist who's "steeped in sleaze" and represents a "fundamental danger" to "every value that we hold dear."

No matter, says Bossie, whose conservative political organization successfully sued in the Citizens United case to air "Hillary: The Movie" immediately before elections. (The high court's ruling went much farther, of course, granting corporations, unions and politically active nonprofits the ability to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against political candidates.)

"I bet Hillary Clinton absolutely loves the Citizens United decision because she knows it's going to help her — it makes her stronger and a more viable candidate," Bossie said. "And yeah, the irony of Hillary benefiting from Citizens United is not lost on me. Frankly, I'm entertained by it."

Bossie chides Clinton for trying to "have it both ways" with campaign finance issues. She positions herself as a reformer one year, then stands by silently the next as legions of supporters and operatives collect Citizens United-sanctioned riches in her name, he says.

If Clinton runs for the White House, expect someone in a Democratic primary to challenge Clinton from the left on campaign finance issues, Bossie predicts.

In the meantime, Bossie says he's content to watch Clinton help further entrench Citizens United as law for years to come.

"Without her, I wouldn't have won a Supreme Court case," Bossie said of Clinton. "She has a special place in my heart."

Adam Smith, 'Texts From Hillary' co-creator and communications director of Public Campaign:

Smith walks a funny line with Clinton.

Professionally, he helps lead an organization that is "dedicated to sweeping campaign reform that aims to dramatically reduce the role of big special interest money in American politics."

Personally, he helped create a Clinton-themed meme so outrageously hilarious that the then-secretary of state fan girled her way into the running joke.

So how do you tell someone who supposedly lords over Mark ZuckerbergJon StewartTimothy GeithnerJohn BoehnerSarah PalinAnthony Weiner and Politico's Mike Allen that — OMG! OMG! — she's dead wrong on political money issues?

Diplomatically, if at all.

"Politics is full of irony," Smith said with a laugh.

Sure, Smith said, his organization would love to see all candidates regardless of party support a campaign finance system that neutralized the power of big-money political vehicles. But it doesn't seem realistic that Democratic presidential candidates will publicly shun such support while Republican hopefuls delight in it.

"Democrats were slow on the take after Citizens United,” Smith continued. “They are now going to make sure that they use all the tools in that toolbox they've got."

Clinton, Smith added, is "a politician who has to work with the system as it is."

Adam Parkhomenko, Ready for Hillary super PAC executive director:

For Democrats, the first rule about joining the Citizens United club is, apparently, that you don't talk about the Citizens United club.

"We won't have much to say about Citizens United," said Parkhomenko, a longtime Clinton lieutenant who previously led the Draft Hillary for President 2004 committee, then later, worked for her U.S. Senate leadership PAC — HillPAC.

But Parkhomenko is quick to describe Ready for Hillary as a different kind of super PAC.

It's not one, he says, that vacuums millions of dollars from billionaires' bank accounts — hence its self-imposed contribution cap of $25,000. He added the group will not run television ads, the primary communications vehicle for most successful super PACs.

"We've turned the typical super PAC model upside down," Parkhomenko said. "This is all grassroots."

Grassroots with a healthy helping of political Miracle-Gro. The super PAC raised $4 million in 2013, is aided by some of Clinton's most stalwart supporters and recently rented entire email list of Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, according to TIME. It's also conducting pro-Clinton events across the country, advertising widely online and holds open the possibility that it'll produce radio ads.

Although super PACs and candidate committees are banned from coordinating their expenditures, Clinton isn't a candidate — so Ready for Hillary is effectively free to operate how it sees fit until she is.

The decision to create Ready for Hillary as a super PAC was an easy one for Parkhomenko.

"In my mind," he said, "it was the best kind of committee available ... for what we want to accomplish."