On Sunday, April 24, billionaire Charles Koch — by some estimates the ninth-wealthiest person in the world — gave an interview to ABC News. It was, I must confess my grudging respect, brilliant political theater. Koch struck a high-minded pose where Donald Trump was concerned. He was profoundly disillusioned with Trump’s many personal attacks on opponents and on the press. He found Trump’s proposal to create a national registry for Muslims “monstrous” and “reminiscent of Nazi Germany.”
Nor was Koch finished. He agreed that the “system is rigged” in favor of the wealthy. He conceded that the tax code subsidized the rich. He even acknowledged that his business has been the recipient of “corporate welfare.” To the barricades! Charles Koch has joined the new left! Maybe he has been reading Thomas Piketty.
Koch still had more to say. The topic arose: Who was the more disappointing president, the interviewer asked, George W. Bush or Barack Obama? Koch did not want to make the comparison. He preferred comparing George W. Bush to Bill Clinton. Bush was “a fine person who tried to do the right thing,” Koch suggested, but he was in over his head. His invasion of Iraq was ill-advised. And the size of government increased substantially on his watch.
No, Koch suggested, the better comparison was George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. There was much, Koch said, that he found appealing in Clinton’s presidency. Especially in the area of government regulation and federal spending, Bill Clinton was good for business. When asked about Hillary Clinton, Koch said it was “possible that another Clinton would be better than another Republican” although he insisted that Hillary Clinton would have to govern differently from her “rhetoric.”
Why this interview, and why now? There are at least four possible answers to that question. I shall move from the most to the least cynical. First, most cynically, Koch might wish to damage Hillary Clinton’s standing with Democratic voters. The Democratic primary, after all, is still ongoing, and Bernie Sanders is still polling well nationally. He is not likely to win the Democratic nomination, but a string of late primary victories would leave Clinton in a weakened position. Huff Post Pollster shows Hillary Clinton with a single-digit lead over Sanders in the California primary. Imagine the havoc if Sanders prevailed. Surely, Charles Koch has pondered the possibilities.
Second, he may wish to gain some standing on the Democratic side of the aisle. Koch is a shrewd man and surely he has considered the possibility that the Republican Party may be in the process of consigning itself to the wilderness. If that is the case, if the Republican Party is marginalizing itself, if it will be out of power for a number of years, then one must play ball with the winning team. He may well have concluded that he has no chance of attaining his policy objectives with a Republican Party that could spend years on the sidelines and so he is sounding out opportunities on the other side.
Third, he may genuinely fear the coming turmoil in the Republican Party. Certainly, he gave voice to this concern in his interview. Donald Trump has pandered to the most dangerous passions in America — fear, foreboding, racism, xenophobia. He has taken a hostile view of the world. He speaks and acts like a bully, He has no patience for constitutional restraint. World leaders are rightly alarmed. As are many others. Charles Koch may quite rightly worry about a Trump ascendancy and what it means for the future of the Republican Party. If Trump succeeds, if he recreates the Republican Party in his image and likeness, there will be an exodus from that Party. Charles Koch may simply be the cutting edge of a coming wave of departures. Or, he may simply be hedging his bets.
Fourth and finally, Charles Koch may see Hillary Clinton as someone he might be able to do business with. And so he has decided to send a visible and public signal through his interview. He stated in the interview that he has so far refrained from giving money to the leading presidential candidates. And, he added, he might not. And, furthermore, he indicated that he thinks highly of Hillary’s husband Bill and his policies towards business. Thus, Koch volunteered some things that might or might not gain him some access in a future Clinton administration. In the end, Charles Koch, whatever his protestations, is like most high-end contributors. He wants public policies consistent with his interests. He wants access. So you open the dialogue with a favorable television interview.
So, what does this interview mean for Hillary Clinton? If the Republican Party truly is heading for a crack-up this summer over Donald Trump, Charles Koch will not be alone among prominent Republicans in opening up a dialogue with Hillary Clinton. Indeed, in February, Robert Kagan, a neoconservative publicist of George W. Bush’s war on Iraq endorsed Hillary Clinton.
How Clinton handles such endorsements, or even the occasional kind word from Charles Koch, is important. She already has a problem with perceptions. After all, she earned millions of dollars in speaking fees from strategically-situated business groups and has refused to release the transcripts of those talks. Her vote on the Iraq war in 2003 was a true and monumental misjudgment. Still, she will likely be the Democratic nominee. (And I should add that if she is the nominee, I am likely to vote for her myself).
What is crucial right now is that Clinton must maintain distance between herself and the Charles Kochs and Robert Kagans of the world. Their policy prescriptions have been proven wrong for America. The political winds, furthermore, are moving in a different, more refreshing direction. Progressivism is catching fire and and it is not likely to be extinguished anytime soon. This is the reason behind Bernie Sanders’ improbable success. A critical mass of the American public knows that unrestrained capitalism has failed, just as they understand that Middle Eastern militarism has been a mistake. Hillary Clinton should avoid associating herself with figures like Charles Koch or Robert Kagan. She should accordingly be very suspicious of Charles Koch’s blandishments.