Sorting Out the Issues, Interests, and Impact of the Clinton Foundation

clinton_foundationNew Orleans    The donors and activity of the now named Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation are becoming a front page political issue that increasingly seems like to roil the coming Presidential campaigns.  From what we know now, including recent reports from the Wall Street Journal, it seems possible to make an early assessment on the likely political impact of the issue.  So, far my assessment is that it will likely deny the chances of Bill or Chelsea ever winning a Nobel Prize, but in and of itself, the foundation will not be a decisive factor in Hillary’s winning or losing in her bid.

The primary issue raised is whether or not donors, including foreign governments and some of the rich individuals close to them or seeking favor from and for them, who are sometimes carrying heavy reputational baggage, would have undue influence with a potential candidate due to their donation and special relationship with the foundation.  This issue is at the heart of transactional versus transformative politics and philanthropy.   It is also politically impossible to prove because any quid pro quo understandings would be unspoken, whether sought by the donor or implicitly understood by the gift seeker.  The fact that it smells bad, doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad though, and that’s important to remember although in public life largely irrelevant.  Nonetheless no one will doubt that many of the donors hoped for something in their own self-interest from the donation and some are obliquely clear about their motivations, even while they try to put lipstick on the pig.

Whatever little fire may be under this smoke should allow Hillary to walk away from the scene, because she had a day-job during most of the foundation’s activity, and it was about Bill and how he spent his time, so it will stick more on his shoes than hers.   Looking at the list of the big donors and their connection to countries is a mixed bag.  Ukraine is a big hitter along with Saudi Arabia, but so are England, Germany, Canada, and India.  For the foundation they come off looking like a giant, unfocused slush fund of sorts with nebulous grab bag programs around economic development, healthcare and opportunities for women and girls.  Haiti has pretty much destroyed any mantle of success around development.  Some of the drug pricing arrangements, particularly in Africa have been significant but won’t stand tall enough in a storm, and the advantage of the women’s programs is already being undercut by criticisms focused on contributions from countries with abominable policies for women.  The lack of clarity between the foundation, the Clinton Initiative, and likely political donors muddles even more.  A foundation policy of disclosing donation “ranges” rather than transparent amounts and information is also not something that going to get them any kind of good governance award from the Journal of Philanthropy. 

You just wish they stood for something more firmly that could give a better explanation to the controversy.  I’m no huge fan of billionaire Bloomberg, but I have to respect the fact that he hates smoking and traffic deaths, guns, and sugar-soda fed obesity and is willing to put his money behind his mouth and step into controversy about it.  He can because it is his money after all, so critics be damned.  The Clinton Foundation is a channeling agency for the rich, whether people, governments, or corporations.  The Clintons are certainly rich themselves now, but not Bloomberg, billionaire rich, and this is where a history of messy and the message get woefully mangled.

In short, for Hillary the foundation controversy itself is one she can outrun and outlast.  Perhaps harder will be the general “guilt by association” problem not with individual donors and suspect governments, but the huge distance she has opened up between how she rolls with the rich and the rest of us.  Way past peoples’ boredom with any foundation issue will still be a nagging feeling that her crowd is not our crowd, and solving that problem is not a matter of convenience, but of urgent necessity.


The Chemical Worker’s Song by Great Big Sea