The money at the nexus of the Clinton Foundation, Bill Clinton's speaking shop, and Hillary Clinton's State Department is unnerving. But the amount of coverage it's getting might make you think it's unusually unnerving by the standards of modern American politics.
Nope. In fact, it's not even the most unnerving part of Hillary Clinton's campaign.
The Clinton Foundation is a great topic to investigate because its structure is strange, it namesake is an ex-president, and there are lots of documents and disclosures that can power stories. These investigations are worthy, and these pieces should be written — which is why we've been writing them at Vox.
But it's also worth looking past the smoke to the purported fire: the basic concern is that the Clinton Foundation gave corporations and even foreign governments a way to donate huge amounts of money to the Clintons without seeming like they were donating huge amounts of money to the Clintons — and those donations could have given them unusual access or influence in Hillary Clinton's State Department, or to her hypothetical future White House.
When you look at it that way, what becomes clear is that whatever the conflicts in the Clinton Foundation's finances, the daily corruption that powers modern presidential campaigns is much, much worse.
How to buy a Clinton
With the Clinton Foundation, there is at least the possibility that donors wanted to give money to an actual philanthropy trying to save and improve lives in poor countries. The same can't be said for the daily money-grubbing that fuels modern political campaigns.
Take, well, Hillary Clinton. She kicked off her presidential fundraising on Tuesday with a series of events on Wall Street. Guests paid $2,700 to attend, while hosts had to bundle $27,000 in donations each. These are big, direct donations to Hillary Clinton's campaign. They are being made by people who have paid to be in a room with Hillary Clinton. They are being made with the express purpose of helping Hillary Clinton win the presidency. They are being made by people whose livelihoods are regulated by the very agencies Clinton seeks to control.
The thing that people worry was quietly happening at the Clinton Foundation, in other words, is publicly happening with the Clinton campaign.
You might argue, of course, that individual donors are limited by that $2,700 cap. How much influence can anyone really buy for $2,700? How much goodwill is really purchased by getting 10 of your friends to bundle their contributions alongside yours? Particularly when Chicago businessman Fred Eychaner gave more than $25 million to the Clinton Foundation. One guy. More than $25 million. How can you compare that to donations capped at $2,700?
You can't. But donations to the Clinton campaign aren't really capped at $2,700. Clinton, like every other major candidate in the race (and probably a few of the not-so-major ones), will have a number of allied Super PACs. The Super PACs will supposedly be independent of Clinton's campaign, but they won't be, not really. Hillary Clinton will be raising money for them directly. Her top surrogates will quietly be urging her richest donors to fund send them bigger and bigger checks. And those checks will get eye-poppingly big.
Donations to Super PACs, like to the Clinton Foundation, are unlimited. Eychaner can give another $25 million, or another $100 million, if he so chooses. Indeed, one of the reasons Clinton announced so early was that her Super PAC was having trouble raising those big checks until she officially entered the race.
The dynamics behind Clinton's Super PAC are the precise dynamics that people fear existed in the Clintons' foundation. Extremely rich individuals and institutions will give extremely large sums of money in order to get Clinton elected. These donors will get access, influence, and a certain measure of power over her administration — after all, if Clinton wants to run again, she's going to need them to fund her next campaign, too. And there will be no chance that these donors simply wanted to help Bill Clinton distribute HIV/AIDS drugs in the world's poorest countries.
How to buy the entire Republican primary field
It's not just Clinton, of course. The Republican candidates will have their own Super PACs. The Koch Brothers, for instance, are coordinating a network of rich Republicans who intend to spend nearly a billion dollars — yes, billion with a "B" — on the 2016 election. And there, the corruption has become almost comically explicit.
Rand Paul wrote them a love letter in Time magazine. "Charles and David Koch are well known for their business success, their generous philanthropic efforts and for their focus on innovation in management," he wrote. "Some also know them for their activism in the political realm." Yes, I think I heard something about that activism.
But it's not just Paul. Republican presidential hopefuls are literally flying across the country to audition for the Kochs' support:
In another surprise, a top Koch aide revealed to POLITICO that Jeb Bush will be given a chance to audition for the brothers’ support, despite initial skepticism about him at the top of the Kochs’ growing political behemoth.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz debated at the Koch network’s winter seminar in January, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made a separate appearance. Those were the candidates who appeared to have a chance at the Koch blessing, and attendees said Rubio seemed to win that round.
And unlike the donors to the Clinton Foundation, whose political aims are hypothetical and speculative, the Kochs are political activists trying to change the nature of the Republican Party — and the country. And it's working. As Andrew Prokop wrote, there's no serious Republican presidential hopeful who breaks with the Kochs' core policy commitments — and that's partly because no Republican presidential hopeful who breaks with the Kochs' core policy commitments is going to have the resources needed to be taken seriously:
The Kochs have longed seem to prioritize economic issues — shrinking government, slashing entitlement spending, cutting taxes, and reducing regulations — far above other matters. And it hasn't been too long since the big-spending, Medicare-expanding George W. Bush administration drew their ire.
The prospect of the GOP nominee pledging a major entitlement expansion seems unimaginable now. Instead, the entire party has backed Paul Ryan's plans to overhaul Medicare, to reduce government spending on the program. More broadly, this year's contest features the spectacle of every major hopeful competing to trash the Export-Import Bank — a longtime target of the Kochs, who view the agency as exemplifying government interference in the free market. Support for action on climate change, for Obamacare, or for campaign finance reform are all anathema for the vast majority of the expected presidential field — as they are for the GOP in general.
It actually, unimaginably, gets worse. The Clinton Foundation has agreed to make its donors public, and presidential campaigns and even Super PACs are required by law to make their donors public. We know, sooner or later, who gave money and how much they gave. But there's also the world of 501(c)4 and 501(c)6 organizations, like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, where the donations are simply secret: the public has no way to know who gave, or how much, even though the candidate might know exactly whom they owe, and why.
This "dark" money has gone from a minor feature of campaign spending to a powerful one. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2004 presidential election had less than $6 million in dark money; the 2012 election had more than $310 million.
That means the stories being written about the Clinton Foundation, or about the Koch brothers, simply can't be written about the 501(c)4s — not because the corruption isn't more grievous, but because the information is so much more limited.
The influence-purchasing that people are worried might have happened, in a loose and indirect way, with the Clinton Foundation, is happening in an obvious and direct way around every single one of the major presidential campaigns —and what's worse is that we're getting used to it, inured to it, tired of complaining about it. The Clinton Foundation is getting so much coverage in part because it's novel. But the much more significant, more daily corruption of American politics is, sadly, becoming routine.