How Far Are the Clintons Willing to Go?
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Hillary Clinton, who has built her case for the presidency on her superior "ready on Day One" management skills, burned through almost $130 million of campaign money, had to kick in $5 million from her own murky family funds, and is now pressing her chief financial backers to find creative ways to raise more money.
Some of those financial schemes appear to skirt the law -- as some backers consider putting money into "independent" entities that can spend unlimited sums but aren't supposed to coordinate with the campaign -- while other ideas are more traditional, like appealing to wealthy donors involved with the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby.
Sen. Clinton's new scramble for money -- as well as her campaign's declaration that it is prepared to override the will of the elected Democratic delegates if necessary to secure the nomination -- raise the question of just how far Bill and Hillary Clinton are willing to go to achieve their presidential restoration.
Some Democrats, who have e-mailed me, praise the ruthlessness of the Clinton political machine, arguing that only a readiness to throw sharp elbows can defeat the Republicans this fall. These Democrats hate what they call Barack Obama's "Kumbayah" message of national reconciliation, a reference to the campfire song based on an old African spiritual.
However, other Democrats fear that the Clintons are putting their personal ambitions ahead of what's good for the Party and the country, that they are ready to dirty up Sen. Obama with attack ads and dismiss his millions of supporters as -- what one key Clinton backer called -- "a cult of personality."
If the Clintons overturn the majority will, the Democratic convention in Denver could bring to mind the infamous Chicago convention in 1968 when the Democratic establishment imposed its favored candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, on a rebellious rank-and-file, contributing to the election of Republican Richard Nixon.
Though a repeat of the 1968 violence is unlikely, a Clinton-driven insistence that the will of Democratic voters be cast aside could alienate millions of young people and independents who have rallied to Sen. Obama's message of political change.
In a conference call to reporters last week, Sen. Clinton's communications director, Howard Wolfson, made clear that the campaign was prepared to rely on her superior support among the 796 "superdelegates" -- party insiders and government officials -- to overcome Obama's lead among delegates chosen through primaries and caucuses.
"I want to be clear about the fact that neither campaign is in a position to win this nomination without the support of the votes of the superdelegates," Wolfson said, adding that the Clinton campaign would make no distinction between the caucus/primary delegates and the "superdelegates."
"We are interested in acquiring delegates, period," Wolfson said.
Senior strategist Mark Penn also indicated that the Clinton campaign would press the issue of seating pro-Clinton delegates from Florida and Michigan, where she won unauthorized primaries conducted after the national party barred the states from holding contests before Feb. 5 and after other major candidates agreed not to compete.
The Money Race
The Clinton campaign also is appealing for substantial sums of money to spend on advertisements in upcoming primary states: Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 13 that some of Sen. Clinton's top fund-raisers, who have "maxed out" at the individual limit of $2,300 and have tapped out their personal network of donors, are consulting with lawyers about how they can create "independent" groups that can spend unlimited money in support of her campaign.
Susie Tompkins Buell, founder of the Esprit clothing company, was weighing whether to start her own entity for buying ads to promote Clinton or to put money into an existing pro-Clinton organization, like the feminist political organization Emily's List which has already spent about $1 million on Clinton's behalf, the Journal reported.
"We all feel very passionate about it, so the question is, what is the best thing we can do to get her across the finish line?" Buell told the Journal.
The Journal interviewed another Clinton fund-raiser, who declined to be named but who said he might spend $500,000 on pro-Clinton television, radio and newspaper ads.
As the Journal noted, however, "It's not certain that any of the efforts by the Clinton fund-raisers will get off the ground [because] campaign-finance law makes it difficult for campaign insiders to fund independent efforts to elect candidates."
"Independent" campaign initiatives carry both legal and political risks. Not only would a new group have to convince Federal Election Commission lawyers that it is not collaborating with the candidate, the tactic also might remind Democrats of how pro-Republican "independent" organizations, such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, attacked -- or "swift-boated" -- Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam War record.
On the other hand, some hyper-partisan Democrats might laud Sen. Clinton for resorting to hardball tactics that have worked for Republicans.
The Clinton team also was shaking the money trees in more traditional ways.
For instance, campaign finance director Jonathan Mantz met with donors from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a Washington hotel lobby when the AIPAC supporters were in town for other business, the Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 14.
AIPAC wields its legendary influence in Washington, in large part, because of its ability to pour money into cash-strapped political campaigns.
A longtime Democratic operative once recounted an anecdote to explain how AIPAC has amassed its extraordinary clout. He recalled a situation when he was working for a powerful House committee chairman who normally ran unopposed but found himself facing a well-financed Republican challenger.
Unaccustomed to raising large sums of campaign cash, the senior Democrat asked some of his aides to reach out to people they knew. One call was made to AIPAC chief Thomas Dine, who assured the congressman that there was no need to worry.
Suddenly, campaign contributions were pouring in from all over the country, from AIPAC's network of donors. With that one phone call, the congressman's financial problems were solved, assuring both his reelection and his gratitude to AIPAC.
However, given the political sensitivity of the Iraq War -- and AIPAC's perceived support for neoconservative strategies in the Middle East -- many rank-and-file Democrats view the pro-Israel organization with greater suspicion these days.
But the Clinton campaign apparently feels the risk in reaching out to AIPAC is worth the reward.
Sen. Clinton's money scramble also has raised eyebrows about the sources of the Clinton family income. The New York Times ' Feb. 15 lead editorial urged Clinton and Sen. John McCain to join Sen. Obama in releasing tax returns that provide details not included in annual congressional disclosure forms.
"The need for greater transparency regarding the income and overall financial dealings of candidates and their spouses was underscored by Mrs. Clinton's recent decision to make a $5 million loan to her campaign," the Times wrote. "The campaign said the money came from her share of the Clintons' joint resources, and that calls attention to the lack of information about their family finances.
"As a former president, Bill Clinton has been making millions annually giving speeches and traveling the globe. What is publicly known about his business dealings is sketchy, and clearer disclosure of them is required to reassure voters that Mrs. Clinton's candidacy is unencumbered by hidden entanglements."
On Feb. 9 at Consortiumnews.com, we published an article that made a similar point, noting that the Clintons have amassed virtually their entire multi-million-dollar fortune (estimated at around $30 million) in the seven years after leaving the White House.
While some of that money is explained from book contracts, the bulk of the family's post-presidential income appears to come from Bill Clinton's lucrative speaking engagements and financial deals with political backers.
The larger campaign question, however, may be whether the Clintons will set any limits on their hunger to return to the White House -- and whether Democrats will view that single-minded determination as a plus or a minus.