Dan Balz's Take
When a Hillraiser Brings More Than Just Money
One week after John Edwards uttered the words "Lincoln Bedroom," Hillary Clinton's campaign finds itself with another fundraising embarrassment on its hands.
The saga of businessman Norman Hsu has come in three quick stages: a Wall Street Journal story raising questions about his bundling practices: a Los Angeles Times story revealing that there is a pending arrest warrant for him in California stemming from a 1991 fraud case; an announcement by Clinton's campaign that she will donate to charity $23,000 in contributions she has received from Hsu over the years.
Perhaps that will be the end of things, but that would be an optimistic scenario from the vantage point of Clinton's campaign. Instead, the danger is that the latest fundraising discomfiture becomes one more opportunity for Clinton's opponents to stir up other unhappy memories of her husband's tenure in the White House.
The Clinton camp moved quickly, as it generally has this year, to push the story into the background. An announcement this morning of an endorsement by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers provided a positive counter-story for the campaign to promote.
But there are lingering issues that already have become targets for other campaigns. The most significant is whether Clinton will also give back the money that the enterprising Hsu helped to round up from others. The Post's Matthew Mosk reported last night that Clinton has received about $96,000 from people associated with Hsu for her various political committees since 2004.
Clinton addressed the issue today during an interview with O. Kay Henderson, news director of Radio Iowa. "Well everyone was obviously surprised to learn this news and my campaign has taken action in returning his contributions and I'm hopeful he will be taking steps to address the matters he faces," she said. " We regularly review contributions as we receive them and will continue to do so and if we have any reason to return any contributions, we will do that."
Another issue is whether there are other fundraising problems buried in the tens of millions raised by the Clinton campaign. Given the intensity of the fundraising competition between Clinton and Barack Obama, and reports from some Democrats that the network of potential Clinton contributors may be limited, the potential for abuse by people outside the campaign's direct control exists.
Beyond that, however, is the question raised directly by Edwards when he summoned up memories of the Lincoln Bedroom in his New Hampshire speech on Aug. 22.
"The choice for our party could not be more clear," he said. "We cannot replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats, just swapping the Washington insiders of one party for the Washington insiders of the other. The American people deserve to know that their presidency is not for sale, the Lincoln Bedroom is not for rent, and lobbyist money can no longer influence policy in the House or the Senate."
Without mentioning Clinton by name, Edwards rolled together the argument that he will be making more and more explicit in the coming months: that Clinton is a risky choice for Democrats in an election cycle in which growing dissatisfaction with business as usual in Washington is a central theme.
Howard Wolfson, the Clinton campaign's communications director, said in a message today that the New York senator's campaign worries little about damage to her candidacy from things that happened a decade or more ago. "Voters haven't just turned the page on that, they've closed the book," he said.
That is a view long espoused by the campaign's chief strategist, Mark Penn, who has argued from the first day of Clinton's candidacy that the past is not prelude for Clinton, particularly any of the scandals of the past.
But Obama has suggested otherwise. In a recent interview with the Post, he said the Democratic front-runner carries baggage that may not be easily shed. "Some of those battles in the '90s that she went through were the result of some pretty unfair attacks on the Clintons," he said. "But that history exists."
Obama was not referring to any specific scandal, fundraising or otherwise, during the Clinton presidency -- just offering a calculated observation that he clearly wants to make part of the choice for Democratic voters in the coming months.
Both he and Edwards believe they have found a vulnerability in Clinton's staunch defense of lobbyists and the money she accepts from them, which she articulated at the YearlyKos candidate forum before an audience of bloggers. Anything that helps publicize the unsavory aspects of either fundraising or the connection between lobbyists and politicians -- as the Hsu story does -- will be fodder for Clinton's rivals, directly or indirectly.
At this point, Clinton remains on solid ground with Democratic voters. She leads national polls, she has improved her standing in Iowa, she is seen in highly favorable terms by those voters, and she has been running what even her opponents concede has been a largely mistake-free campaign. Beyond that, Bill Clinton remains even more popular among Democratic voters.
In a few days or weeks, Norman Hsu may have faded completely from political consciousness. That is certainly the hope and belief of the Clinton campaign. But the issue of what another Clinton presidency would mean for the Democratic Party and the country is not likely to fade so quickly.
The candidate has ably articulated why it could be positive, in debates and on the campaign trail. But the issue continues to linger and Clinton's opponents have signaled that they are going to do what they can to make the it even more prominent as the campaign intensifies.
Posted at 2:03 PM ET on Aug 30, 2007
Dan Balz's Take
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