Hillary Clinton and the Ghosts of 2006

Maybe Hillary Clinton's right that going back to the candidates' past illuminates their character. I'm not sure we need to know whether they spilled their milk in kindergarten, but let's look at the 2006 election. Barack Obama's Hope Fund PAC, Hillary claims, deliberately contributed to candidates in key early primary states that year, with the aim of securing their later support. Never mind that the Hope Fund gave to a broad spectrum of candidates--including, oddly, Hillary herself. If she really wants Democratic voters to judge their potential nominees on their 2006 choices, she may not like the judgments they make.

2006 was a Democratic opportunity, and grassroots supporters dug deep and then deeper to finance an ever-expanding array of competitive races. Hillary, meanwhile, made a conscious decision to raise $52 million for a Senate campaign that she could have won in her pajamas, spent $40.8 million (to beat a token opponent who spent less than $6 million), and transferred the rest to her presidential campaign.

You could say she was just playing the game, but John Edwards and Barack Obama, in comparison, campaigned throughout the country to support worthy Democratic candidates, while doing negligible fundraising for their own pending campaigns. The Edwards campaign ended that season still in debt from 2004. Obama emerged with less than a million in the bank. Their top priorities really did seem to be helping other Democrats win a critical election, instead of subordinating all other goals to their own personal futures.

For another contrast, the entire Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised only $107 million that season, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee $103 million. Hillary spent more than a third as much as either of these, more than any candidate in America that year. Only the self-funded Jon Corzine has ever spent more for a Senate race in our history. And she did this for a race that was never in doubt.

Imagine if Hillary had 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 help close a $5-million gap with Republican Bob Corker. 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 extra ads or mailings might well have tipped the balance in more of these races. That's why so many of us were stretching to contribute, even when it hurt. Hillary made different decisions. Much as may have been true with her support of a recent Iran vote so reckless that Senator James Webb called it "Dick Cheney's pipe dream," her priority was election-year positioning.

If we compare Hillary's actions to those of the ordinary citizens whose time and money made a critical difference, she comes up short. She also comes up short compared to her main Democratic rivals. While the money she spent may have gained her a few extra points of electoral margin, it did nothing to shift the power from an administration she said she opposed. If we're going to use 2006 as a measure of Presidential character, we might remember the choices Hillary could have made--and the priorities she chose instead.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While. See www.paulloeb.org

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