Politico‘s Annie Karni has just gotten a very important scoop with potentially major implications for this year’s presidential election. She somehow got a hold of a transcript of one of the recent speeches that one of the Clintons has given recently to corporate groups in exchange for a handsome ($285,000 in this case) fee.
No doubt, the story will be seized upon by anyone engaged in or following presidential politics for the evidence it provides about questions that have been asked throughout the campaign: Why do businesses – especially big businesses – pay so much to listen to the Clintons in private? What do the former president and his presidential candidate spouse generally tell these corporate leaders behind closed doors? By extension, are the Clintons working to with these companies and industries to advance their agendas? If so, how energetically?
I found this transcript important for a related, but somewhat different, reason: what it reveals about Bill Clinton’s views nowadays about China, which has been an awfully high profile issue in the 2016 elections. Specifically, it sends a clear message that if voters expect a President Hillary Clinton to respond more effectively than her recent predecessors (including her husband) against Chinese economic and national security challenges, they’d better hope that she keeps the new First Gentleman as far out of the policy loop as possible. Because judging from this transcript, his views on the PRC are as dangerously unrealistic – if taken at face value – than when he occupied the Oval Office.
The transcript presents the remarks made by the former president at a “China-U.S. Private Investment Summit” held in Austin, Texas in March, 2015. The event described its purpose as “[bringing] together 50 Chinese Investor Delegates with over 300 US project sponsors, policy makers, entrepreneurs, trade associations, economic development groups, and professional service firms for the most important bilateral engagement program of the year” to “support the public interest through cross-cultural private investment” by deepening “understanding on the human motivations, market trends, deal models and structures, and key areas for growth in the coming year.”
Translation into plain English: It was a gathering of Americans trying to make money by doing business in China, and Chinese trying to promote their country’s investment in America. Nothing inherently wrong with the first aim (although in practice it has too often resulted in the offshoring of valuable American production, technology, and jobs). That second objective, though, is much more problematic, both because China’s government exercises complete effective control over all aspects of China’s finances, including the channeling of capital abroad; and because no one has ever adequately explained why expanding the U.S. footprint of a communist economic system benefits the U.S. economy on net in either the short run or the long run.
And some essential context: As Karni reported, the speech took place a bare two weeks before Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy for president. Indeed, she “was already scouting campaign office space….” As Karni did not report, however, the United States and China at the time were neck deep into negotiations to conclude a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) that the Austin attendees obviously supported strongly, but which is bound to encounter strong opposition whenever it’s submitted to Congress. So it’s anything but unreasonable to suppose that the conferees viewed their payment to Bill Clinton as a great way to boost the odds that a Hillary Clinton presidency would fight for the agreement. (The Wall Street firms that have paid comparable amounts for her speeches love the BIT, too.)
Moreover, given the controversy the BIT is bound to spur simply because China policy has become so contentious, it’s noteworthy that Bill Clinton’s speech mentioned virtually none of it. Nothing about job loss due to offshoring and Chinese protectionism, nothing about the tightening squeeze Beijing is placing on U.S.-owned firms that are invested there, nothing about multiplying Chinese cyber-attacks on American targets, and scarcely anything about China’s intensifying challenges to declared American national security interests in the Asia-Pacific region (which at one point he seemed to attribute to “the rise of Japan” under its current nationalistic Prime Minister Shinzo Abe).
In fact, the former president set the tone art the very beginning: “[W]e all know what the problems are, but I want to talk about the opportunities and why I think it’s so important that you’re here.”
As implied above, Clinton’s appearance at this meeting sent the at least equally important message to the conferees that “he was here” – for them. But his determinedly rose-colored-glasses view of U.S.-China relations and their upside also arguably served another crucial purpose: morale building.
After all, surely Clinton’s audience knew better than most how troubled U.S.-China relations are. And surely Bill Clinton knew that as well. As a result, chances are, like everyone who has a stake in preserving the China policy status quo, these American investors in particular were feeling pretty discouraged even back then, since their road to success had become so much rockier.
As a result, whether or not they believed their own propaganda about possibilities for cooperation or not, the Austin attendees surely needed their spirits lifted. For even many who recognize themselves to be greedy and shortsighted often need reassurance that they’re genuinely devoted to seeking the greater good despite all appearances. It will certainly take the sting out of writing the new series of checks to American lawmakers that any upcoming BIT lobbying campaign will require. And who better to deliver this feel-good message than an engaging, popular former president?
It’s also entirely possible that the emotionally needy Clinton needed to convince himself again that his own China policies, which are now coming under such fire, ultimately advanced the Lord’s work. So much the better to get paid megabucks in the process.