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Hillary Clinton and My Visa Bill

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Message Paul Rogat Loeb
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I just got my Visa bill for my final election donations-all those click-and-donate appeals in my email box and on the Web. I gave more than I thought I had, more than I'd intended to spend, and more than I'd ever given before. You make enough $25 to $50 contributions, and soon you're talking real money, a tenth of my annual income.

But I feel just fine about my giving. I'm proud to have helped support Dean's 50-state strategy by donating to the Democratic National Committee early enough to help build key infrastructure, and then again and again as new opportunities emerged. I felt great about giving to Jon Tester six times, including for his final election week push. Between my donations and my volunteering with MoveOn's CallforChange program, I felt like I'd personally helped elect Tester, Jim Webb, Claire McCaskill, Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, Sheldon Whitehouse, and half the Congressional candidates from the NetRoots Act Blue page. I'd have felt proud to do my part even if the close races had gone the other way.

What doesn't please me, in fact disturbs me immensely, is discovering that Hillary Clinton raised $52 million dollars for her Senate campaign and allied leadership PAC, HILLPAC. She spent $36 million of it on a race that she could have won staying home in her pajamas, not spending a dime. Now she's sitting on a $13.5-million-dollar war chest, which she'll roll over to her presidential campaign. I know political money is hard to raise, particularly with the new contribution limits, and that some of Hillary's spending went to build a grassroots donors' list that she'll tap in the future. But according to the wonderful site of the Center for Responsive Politics, the entire Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised only $107 million, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign $103 million.

Hillary spent a third as much as either of these, more than any candidate in America, for a race that was never in doubt. She did distribute $2.5 million to various Democratic institutions and candidates, but imagine if she'd transferred $20 million into the dozen Congressional campaigns that Democrats lost by margins as close as a few hundred votes. Or into Harold Ford's Senatorial campaign, to close the gap between the $10 million spent by Ford and the $15 million that Republican Bob Corker spent. Hindsight's always easy, but by late summer it was clear that the Democrats had a huge opportunity and were scrambling for the funds to respond to it. A few more ads would almost certainly have tipped the balance for some of the under-funded candidates who came heartbreakingly close. That's why so many of us were digging deep to contribute, and then digging deeper, even when it hurt. Evidently Hillary had other priorities.

When Bill Clinton first surfaced as a leading Presidential contender, I asked a mutual friend what he thought. "He's smart," said my friend. "He reads good books. He wants to do the right thing." Then he paused and said, "But he won't go to the mat for anything except his own political future." To me, that was Bill's core flaw (even more than his pursuit of Monica Lewinsky). Hillary seems to share Bill's hunger for power. You can always rationalize dubious choices by the good you'll do when you gain just a little more clout, and I'm sure she truly believes her candidacy will benefit the United States. But she had a chance to make a major difference in this critical election--and she blew it.

Hillary is far from the only Democrat vulnerable to the charge of hoarding scarce resources: As of mid-October, John Kerry with $13.8 million in his campaign account, and Evan Bayh had $10.6 million. But Kerry transferred over $3.5 million to Democratic candidates and used his networks to raise almost $10 million more. Between his inept 2004 campaign and the damage done by his foot-in-the-mouth military joke-telling, I don't want him as a Presidential candidate; but compared to what Hillary transferred from five times the resources, Kerry at least dug deeper to help. I have even more respect for potential contenders like John Edwards and Wesley Clark, who campaigned throughout the country to support Democratic candidates, but did relatively little fundraising for their own campaign committees and PACs, mostly to maintain basic infrastructure. Their top priority was to help other Democrats to win this 2006 election

I'm sure Hillary would say she did all she could, and then some, and she definitely lent major star power to the campaigns and fundraising efforts of many worthy candidates. But I think about all the ordinary citizens who gave more time and money than anyone would have expected and as a result made a critical difference. In comparison, Hillary falls short. The money she spent may have gained her a few extra points of electoral margin in a race she won by 36 points, and buttressed her already massive frontrunner status. But it did nothing to increase the Democratic victory. Those of us at the grassroots aren't going to stop volunteering and donating merely because some of our most prominent political leaders fall short. But it's a measure of their character that I hope we'll remember when the Presidential primaries begin.
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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)
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