There is much to write about the tangled web of interests surrounding the Clinton family due to donations to their foundations by foreign governments and corporations both at home and overseas. (The latest: Bill Clinton's shrugging off the allegations that those who paid his soaring speaking fees and those who donated to the Clintons' charities bought access to his wife while she was secretary of state by joking, "I just work here. I don't know.") But as damaging as these allegations ought to be to public trust in Hillary Clinton as she makes another run for the White House, they probably won't materially affect the 2016 election if there's nothing beyond the allegations.
So, absent an extremely unlikely prosecution of Hillary Clinton, the GOP needs a way to broaden the case against her. One possibility is to make the election about cronyism more broadly.
Right on cue, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning explaining his conversion from a supporter of the Export-Import Bank to an advocate of shutting it down. Perry cites a guilty plea last month by a former officer at the bank on bribery charges and the 31 pending investigations of the bank. But he also finds a way to tie the case against the Ex-Im Bank, which many House Republicans and corporate leaders have been making for months, to another longtime effort on the right, corporate tax reform:
"One of the biggest challenges America faces is sluggish economic growth. This is complicated by an absurdly complex tax code, which is riddled with lobbyist-driven loopholes and saddled with the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world. The ever-expanding federal debt -- fueled by ever-rising federal spending -- is another major challenge, particularly because we can't grow our way out of this $18 trillion hole. A third challenge is an explosion of new regulations, thanks to ObamaCare, the Dodd-Frank law and President Obama's out-of-control executive branch.
"If we want U.S. companies to win in the global marketplace, we have to do three things. First, we need to clean up the tax code, ensuring that corporate taxes are fair, simple and competitive. Today, the top federal corporate tax rate is 35%, one of the highest in the developed world. And that is before you pile on state and local taxes."
The other things he mentions are other staples of GOP rhetoric: reducing spending to shrink the debt, and curbing regulations. All three, he argues, would be boosted by shutting down the Ex-Im Bank:
"We won't have the moral credibility to reduce corporate taxes if we continue to subsidize corporate exports for corporations that already enjoy low effective tax rates, like General Electric and Boeing. We won't have the moral credibility to reform government programs that benefit future retirees if we don't first reform government programs that benefit big businesses like Caterpillar. We won't be able to give businesses more regulatory latitude if we continue to operate a government bank with an emerging record of corporate corruption. ...
"We could pair Ex-Im’s retirement with corporate tax reform -- a more effective way to improve the competitiveness of U.S. companies. We should work with our partners in the World Trade Organization to roll back the use of export-import banks by other countries, so that American exporters don't face an unfair playing field. The end result would be freer trade and higher growth."
(Spoiler alert: Hillary Clinton is totally on board with the Ex-Im Bank's subsidies.)
Another sign that Republicans see this argument as a path forward is the rhetoric coming from Carly Fiorina, the former technology executive who entered the race this week. Already, Fiorina is showing signs of trying to use her business experience as a way to critique industry in a way that Mitt Romney never quite managed in 2012. Timothy Carney makes the following observations of Fiorina in a new piece for the Washington Examiner :
"Fiorina's attacks on Obama's interventionist economics aren't the typical GOP cries about socialism, or blunt bashing of 'big government.' She drills down to the crucial point: Bigger government enriches the insiders at the expense of everyone else. As she puts it, '[T]here is a political class that is totally disconnected from [ordinary people's] lives and that's stacking the deck against them.'
"She said last week that the 'dirty little secret' of 'Obamacare or Dodd-Frank or all of these other huge complicated pieces of regulation or legislation, is that they don't get written on their own. ... They get written in part by lobbyists for big companies who want to understand that the rules are going to work for them.'
"At the National Review Institute's summit Saturday, Fiorina busted out the Warren line again: 'Crony capitalism is alive and well. Elizabeth Warren, of course, is wrong about what to do about it. She claims that the way to solve crony capitalism is more complexity, more regulations, more legislation, worse tax codes. And of course the more complicated government gets -- and it's really complicated now -- the less the small and the powerless can deal with it.'"
That's exactly right. If Fiorina (and Perry) can marry a populist sense of frustration that crosses party lines with more traditional GOP economic arguments, they may prove to be more formidable candidates than most people assume. Even if neither of them elbows their way toward the top of a crowded primary field, they may be able to elevate this line of thinking to the point it becomes part of the main Republican message in 2016.
If that happens, it will be only natural to cast Hillary Clinton, with the apparent conflicts of interest that are already being widely reported, as central to and representative of this bigger problem with special interests in Washington. And that could be a very powerful message.