LOS ANGELES – Here come the swiftboats....
Why are a group of California billionaires teaming up with a couple of experienced operatives to create an independent group to finance pro-Hillary ads in Ohio?
And more important, is it good news or bad news for the Hillary campaign?
The answer, in a word, is both. Both good news and bad news. A sign that the campaign is struggling, but that the fight is not over.
Independent groups are nothing new in prolonged and expensive campaigns.
Back in the 1984 Mondale marathon the publicly financed Mondale campaign, facing federally imposed overall spending limits, had its delegates create their own “delegate committees” to try to inject money into the maxed-out, tapped out campaign.
They took so much political heat for the end run against the law that most of the committees sputtered out, and by the time Mondale claimed the crown, his staff had been going without pay for months, and it was pay as you go for convention hotel rooms.
In the years since, “delegate committees” have been replaced by 527's, named for the section of federal law that allows political committees that are independent of the campaign to spend money without regard to any limits on the campaign itself (irrelevant here, because neither Obama nor Clinton have accepted federal matching funds) or, more important in this case, whether the donors to the political committees have already “maxed out” in terms of their contributions to the candidate committees.
In this context, independent committees serve two purposes.
First, they provide a way for these maxed out major donors to pump more money into the campaign.
When the Clinton campaign first began, just over a year ago, the focus was on raising big bucks from big donors -- Hill-raisers were collecting $2,300 per person, for the primary, and another $2,300 for the general, and another $2,300 from your spouse if you had one for the primary, and another $2,300 from your spouse for the general.
To truly “max out,” if you were married, was a $9,200 proposition. And plenty of people did it.
Problem is, now that having done it, you can’t give any more. And while many people thought, back then, that the campaign would be long over (won) by now, and it isn’t, in retrospect, $500 donors who you could go back to over and over again before they reached the $2,300 looks like a smarter strategy for a marathon.
Obama’s collection of a larger base of smaller donors has served him well, whereas Hillary’s collection of maxed out millionaires have cash to burn and nowhere to put it.
An independent group gives them a new way to help, and there’s little doubt that their help is needed.
The other thing an independent group gives a campaign is deniability. The bad news is that the law requires that independent groups not have any contact with the campaign. The good news is that the campaign can claim, has to claim, that it has nothing to do with what the independents are saying.
Swift boats? Don’t blame George Bush. That ugly ad of Willie Horton’s face turning into Michael Dukakis wasn’t made by his father’s campaign.
You can stay up half the night trying to trace the connections between the people who run the independent groups and the people who run the campaigns, but as a matter of law, proving non-independence requires more than old friendships and smart decisions.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if you want to put money to work for Hillary Clinton, you better put some of it in Ohio and Texas.
As for the message, you could argue that a new approach for Hillary could only help, and a touger tack against Obama is something she may not be able to assert without facing a backlash, but someone else can and, if she is to pull this thing out, probably should.
There are, to be sure, people jumping ship from Clinton to Obama. That’s to be expected, when the former frontrunner loses 10 straight to the former underdog.
The real relief for the Clinton campaign is that supporters of hers of the stature of Susie Tompkins Buell, Haim Saban, and Steve Bing aren’t looking to do less for Hillary but to do more, aren’t looking to climb on the bandwagon for Barack, but to figure out how to derail it.
These people are rich, yes, but no one likes to throw good money after bad. It’s a sign that the campaign may be facing the wall, but it hasn’t hit it.
Money talks, and there are Hillary folks who still are determined to be heard.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.