For a very long time, presidential campaigns have promoted their candidates’ humanitarian cred. Nineteenth-century campaign biographies are full of stories of exemplary personal service and sacrifice—Lincoln as a young army volunteer, for instance, stepping in to protect the life of an elderly Native American at a frontier camp. Americans have always wanted their leaders to be not just strong but generous and good as well.
Never before, though, has an election season focused so much scrutiny on one particular manifestation of such generosity: philanthropic giving. This is, after all, the first presidential election in which both major party candidates can claim their own foundation, each of which has cast its institutional shadow over the campaign.
Though this year is unusual, a focus on candidates’ charitable profiles has been building for some time. Until this year, since 1976 every single Democratic and Republican presidential nominee had released his income-tax returns, allowing the press to poke around in his itemized charitable deductions. Meanwhile, the boundaries between philanthropy and politics have been steadily blurring so that attention directed to one realm is almost necessarily drawn to the other. As wealthy donors have increasingly gravitated toward policy advocacy, they’ve found themselves the target of opposition research of the sort that politicians routinely endure. (The Open Society Foundations, funded by George Soros, were recently hacked, likely by the same Russian cyber-goons that hacked Democratic political organizations.) And as substantial private wealth has become a practical prerequisite to holding public office—in 2013, the median net worth of a member of Congress passed the one-million-dollar mark—the political class and the donor class have converged, as the guest-list of any Davos shindig will attest.