2016 And Beyond
Signs of Wear and Tear in the Clinton Machine

Celebrities, corporations, and world leaders appear to have skipped a Clinton Foundation event in unusually large numbers, as the Wall Street Journal reports that the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative—the Foundation’s annual New York City soireée—was unable to attract the kind of money and star power that it has commanded in previous years:

After more than a decade, the Clinton Global Initiative, the showpiece event of the Clinton family’s charitable foundation, is losing some of its pizazz. Many of the group’s longtime supporters are avoiding the Clinton spotlight. Some of the most-sought speakers didn’t make it. Piles of media passes sat uncollected. […]

In all, at least six major corporations that sponsored previous Clinton Global Initiative meetings didn’t make cash contributions the event this year. They include global banking giant HSBC PLC, which in 2014 donated $1 million to the conference, accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers and electronics company Samsung. Others include Exxon Mobil Corp., Dow Chemical Co. and Deutsche Bank AG.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also couldn’t make it, and neither could Hillary Clinton’s former boss:

President Barack Obama declined an invitation, though he attended the conference in previous years.

“The Clinton Global Initiative was just not something we could fold into the president’s schedule this year,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. No secretaries in Mr. Obama’s cabinet are attending. Instead, the head of the Overseas Private Investment Corp., a U.S. loan-guarantee agency, appeared.

It would be rash to draw any definitive conclusions from this poor showing at this year’s CGI. It could be that this event was an outlier, and it could be that, as one attendee told the Journal, people are backing away from the Clinton Foundation because it’s campaign season (even though the CGI had no trouble attracting celebrity guests during Hillary’s 2008 campaign). But it’s also possible that something more consequential is happening—that the great Clinton machine, the engine for sustaining and expanding the Clintons’ political power even as the couple is out of office, is showing signs of wear and tear.

As WRM has written, the Clinton Foundation is far more than a charity; it is the beating heart of an unprecedented political operation, standing “where money, influence, and celebrity form a nexus.” If Hillary’s presidential campaign falters, the machine loses its raison d’etre—not for the Clintons, of course, but for the people who give them money. It says something about the durability of the Clinton machine—and the motives that lead people to support the Foundation and its work—that support for the Clinton Foundation may have started to slip now that the Clintons’ chances of once again wielding national power have been threatened.

President Obama’s absence—indeed, the absence of any high-level administration officials—is particularly noteworthy. The president has shown increased interest in building a political machine of his own once he leaves office, and there is likely to be real competition between Obama and Clinton over who becomes the most influential living ex-president. Who will be the elder statesman to whom the party turns and from whom it seeks guidance? Obama is likely to be a much more unabashedly liberal ex-president than Clinton, who remains a man of the 1990s and Third Way triangulation. One of Obama’s long-term political goals is probably to leave the Democratic Party as a more solidly left-wing organization than it was when he entered national politics. That can only be accomplished if Camp Clinton is forced into retreat.

It’s important not to read too much into a single event; it could well be that the machine is alive and well. But the convergence of two trends—the Clintons’ threatened political prospects and the potential challenge from an Obama machine down the line—may be making the whole operation less appealing to the luminaries who normally would have been at the Foundation’s New York gala this week.

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