Opinion

The GOP attacks on Hillary Clinton's family foundation are bogus and bizarre

If Rand Paul and his fellow GOP presidential hopefuls want to draw blood, going after Clinton's philanthropy is an odd target

Hillary Clinton has been in the national eye for almost a quarter of a century. Over that time, seemingly every aspect of Clintonland has been picked over by the national media, taxpayer-funded investigators, and the Clintons' conservative opponents. So it's understandable that as Clinton embarks on a second run for president, the Republicans who hope to defeat her next year are looking for some fresh material.

The recent email kerfuffle — as secretary of state, Clinton used a personal email address hosted on a server located at her New York residence, an unusual arrangement to be sure — seems to be fertile ground (though perhaps slightly less fecund if you are/were a governor who doesn't want to release all of your own official emails). There has also been a flurry of criticism over the Clinton Foundation's acceptance of funds from a handful of foreign governments when Clinton was secretary of state and married to the foundation's founder. There were more donations from foreign governments after Clinton resigned from the Obama administration and joined the newly branded Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

Foundation funding was the line of attack pursued by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Sunday. "Hillary Clinton has taken money from countries that rape victims are publicly lashed," he said on NBC's Meet the Press. "I would expect Hillary Clinton, if she believes in women's rights, she should be calling for a boycott of Saudi Arabia. Instead, she's accepting tens of millions of dollars." Paul went on to call that "a grand hypocrisy."

Paul isn't the first Republican to criticize Clinton for serving on the board (until Sunday) of a family charity that accepted millions of dollars from countries with poor records on women's rights — though most Republicans haven't gone so far as to call for "voluntarily boycotting" America's closest Arab ally. Carly Fiorina, the HP CEO turned Republican politician, made a similar point at CPAC, and the Republican National Committee released a video criticizing the Clinton Foundation's donations from foreign governments.

There are substantive issues regarding the Clinton Foundation's solicitation and use of funding — Nonprofit Quarterly has a good rundown of the philanthropic issues, and Politico has a long look at the management turmoil and power plays at the foundation. But it's an odd political target, especially for Republicans.

First, Republicans traditionally support private charity, especially as an antidote to government assistance. Here's Paul, in 2011, enthusiastically citing a study by MIT economist Jonathan Gruber and waxing poetic about charity:

You have to ask yourself, if you had $100, who would you give it to? Would [you] give it to the federal government and say, "Would you help some people with my $100?" Or would you give it to the Salvation Army, or to a private charity that does a much better job, that's much more efficient, and gets people, and helps people and you can go and see the help directly? You have to ask the difference, also: Is there a difference between charity, private charity, and the nobility of charity, and then the, sort of the bureaucratic malaise of a transfer program that involves transferring wealth from one group to another? [Sen. Rand Paul, Senate HELP Committee hearing]

The Clinton Foundation has $226 million in assets, and it uses them on an array of health, economic development, and women's issues around the world. The foundation was until recently so uncontroversial that Mitt Romney addressed its Clinton Global Initiative meeting during the height of the 2012 presidential campaign. Jeb Bush's niece, former first daughter Barbara Bush, spoke at the 2014 meeting.

The foundation has to get that money from somewhere, and as Hillary Clinton pointed out recently, if the Saudis, UAE, and other countries with poor women's rights records are directly or indirectly bankrolling programs aimed at empowering women and girls, that's their choice: "I think that people who want to support the foundation know full well what it is we stand for and what we're working on," Clinton says.

For this to work as a political attack, Republicans would have to show that Hillary Clinton benefited from these donations. She didn't take a salary from her work at the foundation — given the high speaking fees she commands, plus other income, she wouldn't have to — and it's not like she needs to put "philanthropist" on her résumé. The most politically questionable donation — $500,000 from Algeria while Clinton was secretary of state — went straight to Haitian earthquake relief.

AFP makes the case that Clinton's fortunes rest on the charity's success: "The contributions are legal, but funds from individuals or entities that have considerable diplomatic or economic clout to defend in Washington, expose Clinton to suspicions of conflict of interest since the Democrat gains directly from the success of the foundation which has carried her name since 2013."

That seems unlikely. The Clinton Foundation has given Clinton's husband and daughter a useful role in the world, but Clinton herself has been a U.S. senator or secretary of state for most of the past 15 years. Her political fortunes are tied to her work and political skills, not her family foundation.

It may seem smart to attack Clinton on a perceived strength like women's issues — especially for Paul, who is probably to the left of Clinton on foreign policy, the main focus of GOP attacks so far. But Republicans should remember that every time they bring up the Clinton Foundation, they are only reminding voters that the Clintons are using other people's private funds to help the poor and disenfranchised.

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