Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Clinton Foundation and the Perennial Campaign Dance

It is interesting to speculate on the shape of an alternative universe in which Bernie Sanders had become the Democratic nominee.  As the GOP unpacked its oppo research on Sanders, and the wider public learned for the first time about his enthusiastic support of the Sandinistas, his admiration of Fidel Castro, his criticism of Israel, and other aspects of his past and present political affiliations, Sanders's image would have morphed, for many right-leaning and independent voters, from that of a plucky and avuncular populist crusader into that of a wild-eyed radical bent on creating the People's Republic of America. In that world, we would have seen Sanders's approval rating (which in our own reality has risen steadily since he began his campaign and now stands at well above 55%) erode to be no better than Hillary Clinton's, which is currently the inverse of his.

This is of course a function of the regular campaign dance that unwinds every four years, when the nation is made aware that the sky is falling and (depending on whom you believe) one of two monsters is rising from the depths of hell to destroy the Union. This year the Clintons, by virtue of having been in the public spotlight and engaged in political affairs at the national level for more than two decades, provide especially rich fodder for such projects. The current scandal being pursued in the press and by GOP surrogates is the "corruption" of the Clinton Foundation, a charitable organization established after Bill left the White House which has raised more than two-billion dollars of donations over the course of its operation, some of it from foreign governments, corporations, and individuals.

The Clinton Foundation has devoted its assets to a number of causes, such as providing anti-viral drugs to impoverished AIDS patients, lowering the cost globally of anti-malarial medication, and teaching improved techniques to poor farmers. The Clintons have never been personally enriched by the Foundation, indeed they have put much of their own considerable fortune into the Foundation's coffers. The Clintons' critics, however, allege that donations to the foundation have been used by private individuals and foreign governments to purchase influence from the Clintons.

Whether one believes such allegations is largely a function of one's assessment of the Clintons' vanity. If you feel that it is really so important to the Clintons that AIDS patients be aided in their name and no one else's, perhaps the charges of influence-peddling hold water. Even if one holds the latter to be true, however, the degree to which that should influence one's vote might hinge on how egregious one deemed these transactions to be. These allegations have been investigated exhaustively, and there has yet to be much credible evidence that Hillary Clinton did anything as Secretary of State that did not fall within the normal parameters of that office.

Accusations concerning the Clinton Foundation are usually paired with indictments of speaking fees garnered by both Bill and Hillary that have contributed significantly to their combined net worth.  It is true that both Clintons have given dozens of speeches in the past fifteen years, for average speaking fees exceeding $200,000.  These fees, combined with large advances on the sale of memoirs, have enabled the Clintons to amass an estimated fortune of more than $100 million.

This story is an indictment of the ease with which fame can be translated into money in our increasingly media-saturated and celebrity-obsessed society, but again the degree to which it should affect one's opinion of the Clintons themselves is an open question. Bill Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, has likewise given many speeches, by one count over 200, at an average fee of $100 thousand. Bush has not enjoyed the success that the Clinton's have at amassing wealth, but the explanation for that clearly does not lie in his having tried less assiduously. We might hope to elect a president that can resist the temptation to cash in on fame, but the candidate that bears those virtues might nonetheless have different baggage (Exhibit A: Bernie Sanders).

Every four years the spin machine of each political party goes into overdrive to attempt to negatively define the image of the opposing party. In 2004 we learned from Michael Moore about the Bush family's investments in Saudi oil and from the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" about John Kerry's war service. In 2008 we learned about Barack Obama's intimacy with Bill Ayers and in 2012 about Mitt Romney's history with Bain Capital.

Clinton critics will no doubt insist that concerns about the Clinton Foundation are substantively different than these past allegations, and that anyone who does not acknowledge the distressing "reality" of Clinton corruption is a partisan shill. The degree to which one accepts such judgments depends on many contingencies. I see very little empirical basis for this censure, but I am obviously speaking through the filter of my own partisan bias.

One thing is, however, interesting to note. The book on which the bulk of these accusations are built, Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer, was published more than one year ago. It is thus interesting that this line of attack is being unpacked by the Trump campaign and its surrogates at this early point in the campaign. If Jeb Bush, for example, were the nominee of the GOP, one would not expect these weapons to be deployed until late September or October, when the "death blow" against the Clinton campaign needed dealing. The early use of this material bespeaks a degree of desperation on Trump's part. He has fallen so precipitously in the polls and dug himself into such a deep quagmire of policy miscues and rhetorical obscenities that he needs something, anything, to take the focus off of him and place it onto Hillary Clinton. Where a more centrist GOP candidate might have been able to use these allegations to appeal to independent voters, Trump can probably only hope to use them to dampen Democrats' enthusiasm for their candidate, or perhaps to inspire some defections to the Libertarian or Green Party tickets. November will tell us whether these tactics had any impact.

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