The Clinton Years (Part One)
Don't stop thinking about tomorrow.
Summary: When we think of prosperous eras in modern U.S. history, conservatives often point to the Reagan administration as a crucial turning point. To the corporate class, there’s a good deal of truth to this, but mostly to the extent that the seeds of neoliberalism planted in the 70s were watered during this period. The full blossom would come under President William Jefferson Clinton. Today, establishment democrats recall the Clinton years with the same fondness conservatives treat the Reagan era with. Forget the sex scandals, questionable real estate investments and swirling conspiracies about body counts. The real scandal of the Clinton 90s was the death of progressivism. Part One of “The Clinton Years” examines the legacy of Bill Clinton through the lens of the Clinton Foundation and how it continues to embody the neoliberal ideals of the New Democrats.
30 years ago, a bright, energetic, smooth talking young politician from Arkansas had just clinched the democratic primary to become his party’s nominee for president.
He nearly ran the table, save for a few low delegate states. Only Jerry Brown hung in past March and conceded at the convention shortly after losing his home state of California. It was an unlikely journey for a seemingly small-time governor from a poor southern state. But Bill Clinton was a big-time politician who was on a multiyear charm offensive throughout the nation laying the groundwork for what would become a political dynasty in the U.S.
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To do this story justice, I really want to steer clear of the more salacious details of his presidency and conspiratorial claims that continue to haunt the Clinton family. It’s uninteresting and distracts from important details about his tenure and how his policies hang over the Democratic Party and the nation like a dark cloud.
Because of my age, the 90s were my political coming of age years. Likewise, because of my age there was so much about those years that I couldn’t appreciate or understand. But history is quite clear and getting clearer as we deal with the repercussions of this period.
So to wave away the fog even more, we’re going to split this up into three parts. It’s a bit unorthodox for us, I know. But I really think the Clinton years warrant our extreme focus and attention. The first part is actually going to be close to the present day, examining the legacy of Bill Clinton through the lens of the Clinton Foundation and how it continues to embody the neoliberal ideals of the New Democrats. The foundation is an interesting animal because it remains an extension of Clinton in both good and bad ways. Good in terms of intent, bad in terms of execution and guiding principles. Mind you this isn’t a hit piece on the foundation like we’ve become accustomed to in the media. There are great people at the foundation and they’ve done some meaningful work, but the approach gives us remarkable insight into how deep the neoliberal infection runs in the Democratic Party.
Next week, Part Two will focus on how Clinton developed his political, economic and social principles during his rise to power and ultimately shaped his two terms in office and the legacy of the party through Obama and now with Biden.
And lastly, we’ll scrutinize the presidential years in the 90s. All of the gory policy details and none of the pornographic ones.
The through line is indeed neoliberalism and while we’ve unpacked this term many times before, it warrants revisiting to contextualize Bill Clinton’s philosophy and tenure. The term neoliberalism purportedly first appeared in 1938 at a European conference attended by Friedrich Hayek who began to develop and refine an economic theory that departed from the Keynesian conventions of the day. The term would ultimately be applied to the work produced by Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society, whose star pupil from the Chicago School of Economics would go on to become one of the most influential figures in modern history and the nemesis of our little show.
Neoliberalism is an economic model that promotes free market liberalism and global trade above all else. Its proponents take a cynical view of government regulation and intervention into markets and society. They believe that governments exist primarily to protect trade and that they should be limited to protecting citizens from foreign invasion and from one another; put another way, a government’s exclusive purview is in the carceral and punitive sphere. Free markets can provide everything from capital accumulation and resource management to social services, healthcare and education. The free market can end racism. Alleviate poverty. Prevent war. Neoliberalism calls for the wholesale deregulation of government services whenever and wherever the private sector can function and views citizens in society merely as consumers in a marketplace.
Nowhere was neoliberalism so unabashedly on display as it was during the Clinton administration. These were the glory days. Not Reagan. Not Bush one or Bush two. Not Obama and certainly not Trump. It was green-light-go for the Chicago boys when ol’ slick Willy from Arkansas came to town.
Chapter One: The Foundation. Let’s start at the end.
“When we started, the commitments process was a little card and you just filled it in. And then we figured out, we better figure out how to help people develop these commitments. Then we figured out we better determine how we can help them keep the commitments. So pretty soon most people were involved in helping people commit and keep the commitments.” -An excerpt from Bill Clinton’s closing remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in 2016.
These were former President Bill Clinton’s remarks recounting the accomplishments of the Clinton Global Initiative and all the commitments that were committed to and the people who were committed to helping people commit to their commitments and keep them.
The Clinton Global Initiative was just one of the programs beneath the umbrella of the infamous Clinton Foundation that drew a great deal of attention from right wing media and the Trump Justice Department. This particular program was shut down in 2017 as the foundation looked to refocus its efforts following Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. During the election itself, the Clintons had pledged to restructure the entire foundation by removing family from leadership positions and foregoing any donations from foreign governments, NGOs or individuals.
Controversy had already broken out with the leak of emails from Hillary Clinton, John Podesta and the DNC. And while never proven, certain emails appeared to suggest a sort of pay-to-play relationship for access to the Obama administration for wealthy foreign foundation donors.
Trump and the right wing media pounced all over it while team Clinton attempted to downplay the growing scandal.
The scandal would endure well into Trump’s term as the foundation struggled to find its footing amidst deeper investigations into its financial dealings.
Like most Clinton scandals, where there was smoke there was fire. But not a wildfire. Just little brush fires that served to harden the impression on the right that the Clintons were corrupt. And all extinguished enough to satisfy democrats that this right wing obsession is, was and will always be unfounded.
In true Clinton fashion, they were able to stay one step ahead of any real legal trouble and the foundation lives on to this day. Even the Global Initiative is apparently getting revitalized because lord knows the world needs the Clintons now more than ever. Amirite?
I thought it appropriate to begin with the Clinton Foundation because after all of their years in public service, one can imagine they have learned a great deal about the world and how to fix it. It’s hard to argue their pedigree. Between them the couple has Arkansas Governor, Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and President of the United States on their combined resume. Game, set and match on best power couple LinkedIn profile of all time.
But the foundation reveals how little they’ve learned.
As we dig into the foundation, I want to start on a positive note. Here’s a passage from a New Yorker article outlining some of the foundation’s successes in an effort to debunk claims that it was nothing more than a “slush fund,” a popular phrase on the right used to describe the foundation.
“In a 2014 report, the World Health Organization credited the foundation's health arm, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, which is now a separate, but affiliated, entity, with helping to bring down the cost of aids drugs in poor countries. ‘Nine million people have lower-cost H.I.V./aids medicine because of the work of the Clinton Foundation and my husband,’ Clinton told Anderson Cooper, in June of this year. After examining the basis of this claim, the fact-checking Web site Politifact rated it as ‘true,’ saying, ‘If anything, Clinton understated the number of people who have benefited from the program.’ Charity Watch, the watchdog group formerly known as the American Institute of Philanthropy, has granted the Clinton Foundation an A grade for financial management.”
This article came at a time when even democrats were calling upon the Clintons to abandon the foundation altogether. The whiff of impropriety, especially surrounding Hillary during the campaign, was unseemly and to many in the party, unnecessary. Plus, it kept former President Clinton in the limelight and he was becoming increasingly prone to outbursts and statements that the campaign needed to walk back.
But the election of Donald Trump changed the calculus on nearly everything for the Clintons. So while they did move to shutter the Clinton Global Initiative, the balance of the foundation remained intact, though donations declined precipitously at first. The foundation was at a crossroads.
Despite the ongoing inquiries into their finances, the foundation slowly regained its footing during the Trump years and continued with several core initiatives. Its efforts include climate resilience, tackling the opioid crisis, post-disaster recovery programs throughout the Caribbean, training young future leaders and its “Too Small to Fail” program that provides guidance for children to succeed in school and beyond. Sounds great and wholesome and as I said before, the foundation has achieved some tangible results. Some.
Before we go further into how the foundation and their programs are structured, which strikes at the heart of our story today, let’s dig into the finances. As we do.
The last available annual report came out in November of 2021, covering the full year of 2020. It’s a fascinating look into what’s considered a top rated charity in the world. It’s important to note that this particular foundation is a programmatic charity. It’s not designed to award grants and funds to other charities, though it has the capacity to do so and does from time to time. And we’ll go through some of the language they use to illustrate their approach to changing the world in a moment. But first, here’s a look at the numbers.
From the top: In 2020 the Clinton Foundation took in about $52 million in revenue, mostly between grants and contributions, though it had a few sources of extra income. But the bulk was donations. And it made about $33 million in investment income. Hmmm. Back to that in a moment.
As far as expenses the foundation laid out about $31 million in program expenses, $6 million in management overhead and $3.3 million in fundraising expenses. Now these expenses are primarily in salaries. Back to that in a moment as well.
So, all told for 2020 the foundation had a net gain of $10.6 million in assets; essentially the profit from operations though it’s not considered profit in a non-profit organization obviously. But they brought in $10 million more than they spent on programming.
On the surface, not that momentous right? I mean just last week we delved into the finances of the fake conservative propaganda organization PragerU that had almost the same top line revenue as the fucking Clinton Foundation. Except they just make poisonous videos that tell young people that racism isn’t real. Well, the similarities don’t end with the amount of revenue. Turns out both organizations are sitting on a fucking boatload of cash. As of the end of 2020 the Clinton Foundation had more than $323 million in liquid assets, $81 million of which is “unrestricted” meaning for any use.
Again, another important distinction is this concept of restricted versus unrestricted. Unrestricted means they can deploy that cash however they see fit. Restricted means it sits there for either donor approved purposes or it has self-imposed limitations in the organization’s bylaws. In Clinton’s case, it’s the latter. The organization is designed to absorb money to grow its endowment and these funds have specific uses like operating the Clinton presidential library in Arkansas. And it allows for 3% to 5% of the funds to be used toward programs.
You see this a lot in higher education. Institutions that sit on massive sums of money to be used at the board’s discretion. Financing construction projects, buying land, saving for a rainy day, etc. But for a foundation that purports to be a change agent for climate, economic development, early childhood education and disaster preparedness, it sure is cautious in how it deploys its funds.
Now for that part about investment income. The foundation keeps most of its cash in a range of investments though it has a few million in actual cash on hand. For the most part though their money is tied up in the following ways:
$4 million in cash money. Clams. Moolah. Benjamins.
$52 million in mutual funds.
$107 million in various types of hedge funds.
$35 million in private equity funds.
$19 million in what they just call “strategic investment funds.”
In terms of donations, they listed nine private, meaning personal donors but failed to list the names. But they raised about $7.2 million from just nine individuals, which is pretty substantial in personal donations, but a drop in the bucket overall.
When it comes to where they allocate their funds between programs and handing out grants, the bulk of their money actually stays within the United States. In fact, the foundation apparently allocates money to three foreign regions and the numbers are small. $2 million to climate initiatives in the Caribbean and Central America, $2 million to economic development in South America and $2.5 million to Sub-Saharan African climate and economic development. That’s it.
But recall that they do have the ability to award grants to other non-profit organizations so these are worth calling out as well:
$625,000 went to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.
$10 Grand to City Year Little Rock.
$6,500 to CovEducation. (Whatever that is.)
$52,000 to Kaboom!
$27,000 to Laundry Cares Foundation. (Is that a real thing?)
And $1.1 million to… (Wait for it)... (Wait for it)... The George W. Bush Foundation in Dallas, Texas.
Let’s wrap this part up by talking about tangibles.
We gave credit where it was due with respect to lowering the price of HIV medications in poor countries. And that was a real thing. President Clinton actually addressed how that happened in his state of the foundation address we quoted earlier. Basically that came about through his diplomatic cajoling of drug companies, NGOs and healthcare providers. It was such a success that it laid the way for how the foundation would evaluate opportunities to make an impact in other large scale initiatives. Taking one idea that worked in a very specific circumstance then applying that same logic across the board is a theme that I want you to remember in the next chapter.
But this brings us to the bit about program and salaries. Because the foundation isn’t really designed to award grants…Unless it’s to former presidential war criminals who drove the U.S. economy into the ground, created the widespread domestic surveillance apparatus and got us into two protracted multi-billion dollars wars that produced hardship and millions of casualties abroad...it measures success through consulting and support performed by hundreds of Clinton Foundation employees throughout the U.S. and a handful of other countries around the world.
That the foundation has improved the lives of 430 million people (!) across the globe.
That 30 million children in the United States are leading healthier lives.
And they’ve graduated 11,000 students from their Clinton Global Initiative University program ready to take on the challenges of tomorrow…
…Among other things. Pretty hefty claims if I may say so.
During the pandemic, in the heart of Arkansas, the foundation partnered with Bank of America to provide year-round virtual programming, academic experiences and workshops that prompted civic engagement.
It created an action network that held enriching conversations designed to create a more equitable and inclusive recovery to the hurricane in Puerto Rico in partnership with Mastercard.
It partnered with Verizon, IBM and several universities to gather student leaders committed to making positive change.
It partnered with both Bush foundations to teach leadership lessons from former presidents to 350 scholars committed to tackling today’s most pressing challenges.
Look. There are certainly some fine people working at the Clinton Foundation. And the goals are lofty and admirable. But hopefully you were able to read between the lines to understand the Clinton mentality. A couple of observations.
Yes. It’s important to have leadership in crucial initiatives. Someone needs to be in charge. Setting the course. Steering the ship. And the foundation certainly has the reputation to draw awareness and focus attention on critical issues. That’s important. And the foundation’s staff is deliberately and beautifully diverse. Also important.
But the real work is being done by the organizations they’re corralling and there’s a good chance they’d be doing it anyway. The foundation is basically a vessel to hire extremely well intentioned young people and expose them to domestic and global challenges that are being solved and tackled on the ground by other people.
$31 million in overhead for personnel to develop ideas, extract commitments, inspire leadership, cultivate partnerships, promote civic engagement and foster inclusivity in decision making is exactly the type of liberal green and white washing establishment speak that sounds great but accomplishes little. The rather audacious claim that this plucky band of do-gooders improved the lives of 430 million people is a bit much, even for the most generous fans of the Clintons.
But it’s really about something else.
Verizon. IBM. Mastercard. Bank of America.
To understand Bill Clinton, the shadow he casts on our nation and economy to this day, his worldview, his presidency, legacy, everything about him is to understand the nature of public/private partnerships and wholehearted dedication to neoliberal economic theory that has poisoned our nation. Perhaps beyond the point of no return.
The steadfast and dogmatic belief that governments and nongovernmental organizations alike can only be effective when in partnership with the private sector is core to understanding this man. And a great place to rewind as we examine slick Willy’s origin story.
Before we move on, I want to plant a few seeds for the next section.
The first is to say that while the focus of this series is on the political legacy of Bill Clinton, it in no way suggests that Hillary Clinton is distinct. From the earliest days of his political career, Hillary Clinton played a crucial role in both the development of his political philosophy and its execution. The fact that she has been a lightning rod of criticism in a way that her husband was able to mostly deflect over time is more a reflection of American misogyny than it is a critique of her power and influence. Their marital issues aside, Bill and Hillary Clinton have effectively functioned as a singular power unit unrivaled in history.
In Part Two we’re going to rely heavily on a relatively new book titled Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality by Lily Geismer. Of all the options for Book Love, I’m fortunate to have come across Geismer’s book because it has the benefit of timeliness and a remarkably clear narrative that tracks closely with the larger suppositions of UNFTR. Here’s a passage from the introduction that perfectly encapsulates the premise of the book:
“Left Behind dispels this narrative of the Democratic Party and the political history of the United States since the late 1960s. It reveals how Bill Clinton and the New Democrats helped to fundamentally remake many of the priorities and policies of the Democratic Party and liberalism during this period. The New Democrats’ adoption of market-oriented approaches to address inequality was not a defensive reaction to the Republicans. Rather, it was based on a genuine belief in the power of the market and private sector to achieve traditional liberal ideals of creating equality, individual choice, and help for people in need…Even more significantly, by placing poor people at the whims of the private sector, it put them and their communities at risk for financial instability and predation, as became all too clear in the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath.”
Lastly, you’ll notice that I will continue to avoid the more tawdry details of their time in power. The sheer amount of time they have occupied positions of power and influence in the modern era warrants an honest assessment and almost psychological profile of this curious couple. One concluding observation I can comfortably make even at this beginning stage of the profile is that my feelings toward them are similar to the ones I have toward Uncle Fucknugget, Milton Friedman. I believe wholeheartedly that the Clintons are ideologues. True believers. People who were as attracted to the flame of power as they were to making positive changes in the world.
But they are also the ultimate technocrats. Believers in technology and the power of markets to alleviate poverty, global warming, education, hurricanes, war, famine, you name it. And they came of age in the post-Powell Memo era when corporate America decided to fight back and wrest control. Corporate influence was already normalized when Bill Clinton became governor of Arkansas, the first story that we’ll tell in the next episode. So much so that he would move effortlessly between the two worlds until they ultimately merged into one as the corporate takeover of the nation was completed under his successors.
Here endeth Part One of “The Clinton Years.”
Philanthropy News Digest: Future of Clinton Foundation Uncertain
The New Yorker: How to Save the Clinton Foundation
The Washington Post: Foundation faceoff: The Trump Foundation vs. the Clinton Foundation
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