Clinton plays by the rules while pushing to change them

Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosts a small business forum at Bike Tech bicycle shop on May 19, 2015 in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)
Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosts a small business forum with members of the business and lending communities at Bike Tech bicycle shop on May 19, 2015 in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
To the delight of reformers, Hillary Clinton has made campaign-finance concerns an important part of her national message. Right out of the gate, the Democratic frontrunner made this one of her top policy priorities, telling an audience just a few days after launching her candidacy that she's committed to getting "unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment."
At an event this week, she added, "I will do everything I can to appoint Supreme Court justices who protect the right to vote and do not protect the right of billionaires to buy elections."
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank appreciates the message, but explained today that he's troubled by the messenger. The headline reads, "Hillary Clinton's hypocrisy."

Nice sentiments, to be sure, but the fact that she was unveiling her Citizens United litmus test with party fat cats at an exclusive soiree (four days later, she mentioned it to voters in Iowa) tells you all you need to know about Clinton's awkward -- and often hypocritical -- relationship with campaign-finance reform. Even as she denounces super PACs, she's counting on two of them, Priorities USA Action and Correct the Record, to support her candidacy -- a necessary evil, her campaign says.... Then there's the matter of her plans to continue President Obama's policy of opting out of the public-finance system; Obama's abandonment of the system did as much as the Citizens United ruling to destroy the post-Watergate fixes.

I can appreciate why reform-minded observers find the status quo so unseemly. The lengths candidates must go -- in both parties -- to raise ridiculous amounts of money is a national embarrassment that undermines public confidence in the entire political system. A healthy democracy can't expect to function this way indefinitely.
But to accuse Clinton of "hypocrisy" isn't fair and isn't supported by the facts.
My goal is not to pick on Milbank, and he's hardly the only one making the accusation. The fact remains, however, that there is no contradiction in playing by the rules and hoping to change the rules. These points are not in conflict.
It's not an especially complicated calculus: Hillary Clinton believes the current system is broken. She also believes that until the current system is fixed, she has no choice but to play by the rules as written, just like her rivals.
In theory, Clinton could put herself at a competitive disadvantage, on purpose, going beyond what's required. But it's not reasonable to think a leading national candidate should voluntarily give Republicans an edge in the election -- Republicans who, by the way, won't even pay lip-service to the benefits of campaign-finance reforms.
If Clinton's critics want to voice skepticism about whether she'd follow through on her commitments, fine. If they want her to be more specific in the kind of changes she intends to pursue, great. If they want to push her to make some symbolic gestures during the campaign that wouldn't actually have any substantive effect, that's fine, too.
But to accuse Clinton of "hypocrisy" is a bit too much. Talking about reform to an audience of "fat cats at an exclusive soiree" is actually more laudable than troubling -- this was a candidate effectively telling wealthy donors that she intends to make them less powerful in the electoral system in the future.
Let's not change the meaning of "hypocrisy" to call out those playing by the rules as they're written. It's just not what the word means.