As a result of Bill Clinton’s meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on the tarmac at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, we get to enjoy the treat of another exhausting Clintonworld story about influence, and whether it is or isn’t being unduly exerted.
It’s possible that Clinton and Lynch were just catching up — “a social meeting,” as Lynch put it Friday.
Similarly, it’s possible foreign governments donated to the Clinton Foundation because they viewed it as the most efficient available philanthropic opportunity, without regard for the favorable impression it might make on Bill and Hillary Clinton.
It’s possible Goldman Sachs paid Hillary Clinton $675,000 for three speeches because they thought she would be really interesting, not because they thought the payment might help the bank make a favorable impression on a potential future president.
It’s possible a major Clinton donor ended up on a State Department nuclear advisory board for perfectly innocent reasons, and that there were no untoward effects from top Clinton staffers being simultaneously on State Department and private payrolls.
It’s possible Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich and commuted the sentences of the New Square Four because he genuinely believed they were victims of miscarriages of justice.
The list goes on and on.
My biggest concern is not that anything illegal happened in any of these cases. It is that the Clintons have no apparent concern for appearances of impropriety, as long as they believe their actions cannot get them in trouble with the law.
Given how fragile trust in elite politicians and institutions is today, I believe this blasÃ© attitude about appearances stands to do much more damage than it did in the 1990s.
Some of the scandals that have surrounded the Clintons over the last 40 years have been invented from whole cloth by political opponents and a hostile media.
But others have started from real wrongdoing — anything from pardoning the ex-husband of a major Democratic donor to carrying on a sexual affair with a White House intern — that a preponderance of the electorate decided to look past, judging that they weren’t that important compared to the actual business of the government.
This “hey, it’s legal” approach worked when the economy and wages were growing strongly, because voters weren’t inclined to be too suspicious about whether Washington politicians really had their best interests at heart. “Clinton scandals” were routinely touted by the right but ignored by the left.
No longer — Clinton’s receipt of speaking fees from Goldman Sachs was a big problem in the Democratic primary, a sign of voters’ increasing mistrust of establishment politicians even in their own parties.
I worry about this because Clinton is not just the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. She has become a stand-in for establishment forces that are besieged by populism from the right and the left. She has the heavy responsibility of defending institutions that, despite their imperfect performance over the last 15 years, are essential for upholding global economic prosperity and preventing war.
If anything goes badly wrong in the world over the next four years — not terribly unlikely under any president, given all the upheaval in Europe and China — I’m worried that voters will look at the webs of influence surrounding Clinton and be more inclined to be suspicious that problems affecting their livelihoods have arisen because of self-dealing by elites.
And I’m worried that voters will then choose candidates in future elections who promise to tear down the useful institutions that many of us will be reluctantly voting for Clinton in the interest of defending.
This is no time to be casual about appearances of impropriety — a fact that Barack Obama seems to have understood in leading his low-scandal administration. I am worried that Clinton does not understand it, and that the result will be a boost to the damaging populism that is sweeping Europe.