Bowing to common sense and good judgment after a years-long effort to do otherwise, Bill and Chelsea Clinton announced today that their foundation will massively scale back its undertakings if Hillary Clinton becomes president — shutting down the signature Clinton Global Initiative and transforming itself into a much smaller nonprofit focused on a narrower range of ex-presidential undertakings like the Clinton Presidential Library. This follows — and greatly expands upon — the news that leaked last week that the foundation would stop accepting donations from foreign governments and corporations.
That news, which the Clintons clearly hoped would be greeted as welcome by the press, instead played very poorly. After all, conceding that there was something potentially corrupting about Clinton Foundation fundraising while saying it would continue until Election Day sounded more like a Labor Day special on political corruption rather than a move to curtail it. It also naturally raised the question of why corporate money would be viewed as corrupting but donations from rich individuals would not.
The move to drastically scale back the foundation — and to try to find new homes for its main undertakings — addresses the problems in a much more dramatic way by simply reducing the scale of the fundraising that will be done. Foundation-related problems have been dogging Hillary Clinton for as long as she’s been running for president. (I wrote an op-ed complaining about the Clinton Foundation’s donor disclosure rules way back in October 2007; the foundation eventually adopted more donor transparency at the Obama administration’s insistence as a condition for her serving as secretary of state.)
To an extent, the change is too little, too late to quiet criticism that the foundation raised money from people and nations that had been before the Clinton-era State Department. But to an important extent, the decision to listen to friendly foundation critics such as Michael Tomasky and Jonathan Chait and go well beyond what was leaked last week reflects an important evolution in Clinton’s thinking.
Clinton is learning, it seems, that just because they’re out to get you doesn’t mean you have to act paranoid.
The Clinton Foundation was a kind of modern political machine
The best way to think about the Clinton Foundation is probably as a 21st-century version of a classic political machine. It provides a mechanism for people who want to help the Clintons to contribute financially to the cause of helping the Clintons. And it provides a mechanism for the Clintons to help themselves by offering jobs to people in the Clinton circle.
That the foundation does genuine good in the world in no way detracts from that machine-like quality.
Any half-decent political machine would, in fact, spend a great deal of time and energy being genuinely useful to people. The choice between an influence-peddling operation and a helping-people operation is ultimately a false one. As Terry Galway’s excellent book Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics argues persuasively, a good machine was not just a mechanism for extraction. To deliver favors, the machine had to deliver votes, and to deliver votes, the machine had to deliver real services to real people.
But if you want to defend the operation on machine terms, then you would need to actually mount the defense. The Clintons’ grudging, day-late, dollar-short concessions to the viewpoint that the foundation is an unacceptable conflict of interest prevent them from mounting a coherent argument in its favor while also failing to conform to modern ideas about proper political conduct.
The foundation exemplified the Clinton scandal cycle
Ultimately, the Clinton Foundation has long been an exemplar of the unhealthy Clinton scandal cycle.
- Consider the case of Vince Foster: A longtime friend and mentor of Hillary’s came to Washington, had a hard time largely due to the bad-faith machinations of Clinton’s partisan enemies, and killed himself in despair. The upshot was years of entirely baseless charges that Clinton or her husband had him killed. Charges that were repeatedly discredited by a range of official investigators nonetheless kept surfacing, not just in hardcore conservative media but even places like the New York Times Book Review.
- When Bill and Hillary Clinton lost money on a bad real estate deal that a friend who turned out to be a con artist suckered them into, it triggered a federal investigation, culminating in Bill Clinton’s impeachment for completely unrelated conduct.
- When they tried to clean up a White House office that the FBI was investigating for financial improprieties, the independent counsel wound up looking into their actions rather than those of the travel office.
This appears to have produced in both Clintons a mentality that essentially no matter what they do they will be criticized unfairly for it, and that therefore they have no reason to worry about any kind of appearance of impropriety under any circumstances. When their hand is forced by external circumstances — as when Barack Obama insisted on donor disclosure as a condition of Hillary serving as secretary of state — they will bend. But they fundamentally think the press will hang them regardless of the details of their conduct, so they may as well do what they like.
In the particular case of the 2016 campaign, they likely feel unusually licensed to do as they please with the foundation because the election is fundamentally a zero-sum game. As Clinton campaign spokesperson Brian Fallon argues, nobody could rationally prefer Trump to Clinton on the basis of the financial conflicts of interest.
Trump's businesses exist to enrich himself, involve a web of shady connections, & still he hasn't committed to divesting his holdings (2/2)— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) August 22, 2016
From sufficiently inside the bubble, the fact that anyone is nitpicking the foundation while Donald Trump’s much more flagrant lack of financial disclosure is still out there confirms the sense that the complaining is just bias.
Clinton is (maybe) learning to draw a distinction
This is an understandable worldview on Clinton’s part, but it’s not correct.
Both politics and the media have changed a lot since the 1990s, and Clinton’s tendency to shut out any kind of ethics criticism had long since become counterproductive. The perception that Obama was a cleaner, less scandal-ridden politician helped him defeat her in a 2008 primary facing an electorate that was not at all composed of die-hard right-wing Clinton haters brainwashed by Matt Drudge and Fox News.
Similar concerns boosted Bernie Sanders’s 2016 primary campaign, and though Clinton beat him she’s been struggling somewhat to secure the loyalty of his supporters in the general election. At the Democratic National Convention and just before, she acted to shore up Sanders’s fans by tacking left on a number of key domestic issues, but that’s left behind a good-government cohort.
As Chait points out, “Voters who supported Sanders in the primary, but who have not embraced Clinton, are actually less liberal on the whole than Clinton’s supporters,” but he agreed with some of the criticisms of her paid speaking career and fundraising.
Beyond that, an even broader cohort of liberals are simply frustrated that many goals they hold dear — like beating Donald Trump or raising the minimum wage — were now being held de facto hostage to the Clinton family’s questionable political judgment. Curtailing the foundation won’t silence the Clintons’ hardcore critics or make Hillary a figure the mainstream press views kindly — as they correctly guess, nothing will do that — but it will make a difference.
Had Clinton recognized that earlier, she’d be in better shape today. But the fact that she has come to recognize it is another sign that she has really has improved her campaign management from where she was last time around.