It's always fascinating to watch the press corps decide which stories to play up, which to ignore - and which to save for later. We now know that a leading Presidential candidate has indirectly received hundreds of thousands of dollars from foreign sources based in a country with pressing business before the government - as well as millions more from private interests. Yet the story of the Clinton family's income has received much less play than the money her subordinates got from the same sources.
Why? And, more importantly for Democrats, when will this story hit? Are Fox News and the Republicans holding their fire until (and unless) Clinton becomes the nominee? That's an important question - because, when it does hit, this story is going to make the questions about Tony Rezko, questions which should legitimately be asked, look very small.
First, is it fair to say that the candidate herself has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Colombian government? We're always careful not to accept anything the media says about the Clintons at face value. But we know that Bill Clinton received $800,000 in speaking fees from Gold Service International, a business group formed to foster increased trade with Colombia.
And what single event would do the most to increase trade with Colombia? Passage of that trade agreement that Sen. Clinton tells us she opposes. (She told us she opposed NAFTA, too - privately - although Clinton White House records indicated she stumped for its passage.) And while Sen. Clinton says she opposes the politically unpopular deal, her husband has been pushing it for quite a while.
Here's a simple fact: Bill and Hillary Clinton file tax returns jointly. $800,000 to Bill is therefore $800,000 to Hillary's household. Or, if you were counting assets separately on a community-property basis, Hillary's net worth increased by nearly half a million dollars thanks to that Colombian trade group.
So here's the story in a nutshell: Foreign business group pays $800,000 to the household of a Senator - and possible future President - while a critical trade deal is being debated in Washington. And the press isn't even talking about the story much - yet.
Let's be clear about this: I'm not suggesting wrongdoing on the part of either Sen. Clinton or the former President. She says she opposes the deal, despite the income (although that could change, of course.). For his part, President Clinton has always been a vocal supporter of NAFTA and other similar trade deals, so it's fair to assume that his expressed support for the Colombian agreement represents his real opinions. And his standard speaking fees are very high.
What I am saying is that there is precedent for stories like this. Speaking fees have been perceived as a way to bypass regulations and buy lots of goodwill from politicians. Paying generous "service" fees to family members has been seen in a similar light. Yet the press has played down this story. Strange. They haven't hesitated to smear the Clintons with vile, baseless, and nasty stories and comments about topics that have no relationship to public policy, and the Clintons' constant complaint is that the press is their enemy. Yet she's dodged a bullet so far on this one. Even Fox has been pretty quiet about it. Why?
Here's one possibility, especially for the Fox crowd: They don't need it yet. They're waiting to see if Clinton can turn the nomination process around and become the nominee. If she does they'll run with it 24/7. But until then, they're going to keep it on ice.
Candidates' complaints notwithstanding, the press isn't for against either Democratic candidate. They want the race to go on as long as possible, for selfish reasons. It's great for ratings and viewership - and as long as they have a horse race to cover, they don't have to discuss unpleasant realities like the war in Iraq.
Turning this story into a scandal could end this race prematurely. But if Hillary becomes the candidate, this story could become a great source of endlessly repeating coverage - with, of course, some behind-the-scenes help from the Republican National Committee.
There are number of other names on President Clinton's speaking list, too, including diamond traders, investment funds, health insurers, foreign banks, and other whose destinies might be impacted by the next President's actions. They could keep this story alive for a long time.
Bill Clinton has the right to earn a living at a level that's commensurate with his enormous talents. I'd like to see him give a speech someday myself. But when you receive that much money from one group, and then advocate for their interests while your spouse is running for President and sitting in the Senate, it provides fodder for journalists ... and for your party's enemies. Even more importantly, these kinds of payments raise legitimate questions about power, wealth, and influence.
Arianna's all over the Clinton/Colombian connection. My concern is broader, and is based on the fact that a Presidential candidate is receiving money from a number of different private sources through her spouse. How will this issue play in the press, and how might it be used in the general election?
At a minimum, this was a serious lapse of judgment on the Clintons' part. At worst, it's an example of Washington coziness with the powerful, a system of mutual self-interest that needs to be changed. And either way, it's a weapon that will be used to great effect against the Democrats if Hillary becomes the nominee.
Other campaign news:
Did you know that if the Democrats chose candidates in alphabetical order, Hillary Clinton would already be the nominee?
Princeton prof (and my former nemesis) Sean Wilentz has published one of those wacky alternate-history scenarios the Clinton team routinely produces, in hopes of persuading superdelegates and others that the nomination is rightfully Hillary's. Thankfully, Brad DeLong and Oliver Willis have already deconstructed it, saving others a lot of time and effort. As for me, if I want alternate history I'll reread Philip K. Dick's The Man In the High Castle.
Did you know that if the Democrats chose candidates based on the number of endorsements they received from glasses-wearing British pop stars who did their best work in the 1970's, Hillary would already be the nominee?
I am not going to slam Sen. Clinton over the confusion about that hospital death story, however. I always knew the story had to be more complicated that she was letting on, and she should have too, because Federal law makes it illegal for any hospital to turn away someone that needs emergency treatment. The story that has now come out - that the woman was refused treatment by a clinic - makes more sense.
But I actually applaud Sen. Clinton on this one. She's trying to explain, in simple and illustrative terms, the complex story of the ways our health financing system can kill people. That's an important contribution to the debate, and I hope she keeps at it.
Did you know that if Sen. Clinton owned an anti-gravity belt and Democrats picked candidates based on their average daily altitude, she would already be the nominee?
As for Mark Penn's "resignation," that was apparently another tall tale. She's still taking advice from the wrong people. Sure, it was a coup to get Sir Elton. But it seems to me she's run her campaign like a candle in the wind, never knowing who to turn to when the rains set in ...
John McCain has a new ad that claims he's more qualified than either Democrat to handle economic issues. But what's really striking about the ad is its claim that we need "a President who will be ready at 3 am." I know he's not as young as he used to be, but at least Bob Dole waited until he lost the election before he started doing Viagra ads.
More recent election commentary here:
James Carville, Don't Write Me Anymore
Molly and Camille ... and Big Star
How Barack Obama Should Turn Down Public Financing