After a pair of articles appeared late last week in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal revealing both the extent and the sources of Hillary Clinton’s philanthropic foundation’s fundraising, liberal punditry has spent the weekend collectively clutching its pearls.
The reports explain that in its first twelve years, the Clinton Foundation has raised about $1.69 billion. Then, in 2013, after Hillary stepped down as secretary of state, fundraising efforts at the foundation redoubled; the end of 2014 saw the foundation’s total intake reach nearly $2 billion. These are massive numbers for any philanthropic organization, and the fact that this sort of money is passing through the hands of a woman all but assumed by many to be the next president is creating some painful cognitive dissonance for Democrats used to vilifying conservative millionaires for their political spending. Add to this that more than half of the high-level donors— those giving more than $5 million to the Clinton Foundation— come from foreign countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Argentina and you have a veritable mini-scandal.
Frank Bruni of the New York Times worries that the move will “spook” Democrats looking to hold Clinton up as a defender of the little guy while handing Republicans the brush with which to paint the former First Lady as out of touch. Bruni characterizes Clinton’s fundraising practices as reckless, saying the foundation’s list of donors “boggles the mind.” A key Democratic county chairwoman in New Hampshire criticized the foundation’s decision to lift a restriction on foreign government money: “Our stance as Democrats is she needs to realize that is not something we stand for; that is nothing we believe in— It’s not ethical,” said Emily Jacobs, chairwoman of New Hampshire’s Coos County Democratic Party. National Journal’s Bob Fournier called the same policy “stupid and sleazy.” The Times ran a terse editorial worrying about a “potential conflict of interest,” all but begging Queen Hillary to make the whole thing go away.
But one must seriously question how surprising any of this really is.
Hillary Clinton is a political being. Her fortune and her philanthropy both flow from a life spent fundraising for herself or her party. The overlap between her political life and her philanthropic enterprise should be anything but shocking. Roughly half of the top donors to Hillary’s 2016 PAC and her 2008 campaign have given over $10,000 each to the foundation. Money flows into the foundation from the same Wall Street contacts that supported Hillary by large margins in her 2000, 2006, and 2008 elections. And foreign governments— with whom Mrs. Clinton had official business during her tenure as secretary of state— gave up to a third of the foundation’s $1 million-plus gifts.
We could look upon this deluge of giving with all the indignant disbelief of Captain Renault, or we could confront the troubling questions it raises about the corporate-political-philanthropic nexus currently driving Clinton’s campaign. After all, Clinton is not some striving captain of industry trying to offload a lifetime’s earned income or a bleeding-heart Silicon Valley CEO with a newfound fortune burning a hole in her pocket—she is a politician who will almost certainly be running one last time for the nation’s highest office. It is more prudent than it is cynical to never have expected her to embrace philanthropy simply for its own sake.
Are we really so naïve to think Hillary Clinton hasn’t been calculating every move of the past fifteen years to put herself in a better position for capturing the White House, and that she would not use her philanthropy towards that end as well?
And even more fundamentally, we should question the extent to which we expect our political leaders to also be philanthropic powerhouses. Must our public men and women be world-class humanitarians, in addition to everything else? Or does the Clinton Foundation brouhaha just reveal the unhealthy influences Big Philanthropy and Big Politics have on each other?
As Mrs. Clinton prepares for what is likely to be her final political performance, we would do well to keep these critical questions in mind.