Susan Estrich: Obama Needs to Help Clinton Clear the Debt

If you’re trying to figure out what’s happening on the Democratic side of the aisle, there’s a short answer: green. No, I don’t mean green as in the environment, although the environment is obviously an important issue. I mean green as in the color of money.

This week, former rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are holding their first joint fundraisers. The ostensible goal is to raise money for Obama’s fall campaign, but what insiders are watching, even more closely, is how much gets raised for Hillary’s failed spring effort. It is a whole lot easier to convince Clinton supporters to give to Obama than it is to convince Obama supporters to give to Hillary. But in the long run, Obama needs to help Hillary at least as much as she needs to help him. It’s just harder.

It’s an old tradition in politics for the winner to help the losers retire their debt. There’s a simple logic to it: usually, it’s debt that forces candidates to get out of the race, and the winner can encourage that such departures by agreeing to help pay off any debts.

Raising money to pay a debt is about the hardest job in political fundraising. People stand in line to ingratiate themselves, and reap the potential rewards, of supporting a winner, not a loser. True, Hillary Clinton is still the senator from New York, and may be for a long time, but that alone is not worth the $23 million her campaign owes, particularly since the people who presumably care the most about Senator Clinton, and like her the best, are already maxed out – they have already given the maximum the law allows them to donate to her primary campaign, and even if they were willing to give “again” to her next senate campaign, the senate campaign can’t pay off the presidential campaign’s debt.

Basically, she has between now and the convention to raise and pay her primary bills, which is why she needs Obama’s help, and his donors, to do it.

The problem with persuading Obama people to give to Hillary is three-fold. First, there’s the small matter of her not getting out of the race until it was over. I can argue that her decision to stay in the race until the end didn’t hurt Obama, who got his “bump” once she got out, but that isn’t the way many Obama supporters see it. From their perspective, she stayed in the race too long, long after she had any chance of actually winning it; so why should they help her pay what it cost to do that? She wasn’t a good sport, as they see it, so why should they be?

Second is the fact that unlike every other presidential candidate in recent history, Barack Obama still needs to raise money for his own campaign. Now, it’s one thing to ask super-rich folks who to write a $2,300 check to Hillary, knowing that it won’t have any effect of their ability to write another $2,300 to Barack Obama’s general election campaign (having already donated that to his primary effort). But most of Obama’s contributions came in smaller denominations, from people who could give more to the Obama primary effort OR make a contribution to the Obama general election OR give to Hillary — not all three.

You can’t blame the Obama people for wanting to make sure that Obama remains the priority of their small, budget-minded donors, but there are only so many billionaires and multi-millionaires out there, and you also can’t blame the Hillary people for hoping/wishing/expecting that Obama’s pledge to help Hillary will include an appeal to his historically large and generous small donor base.

The third problem is, in some respects, the most sensitive. Hillary does owe money to the sort of small vendors that no one likes to walk away from, the copy shops and printers and small landlords who make the mistake of extending credit to campaigns (unlike telephone companies, which in my experience, know enough to demand huge deposits up front). But the Clinton campaign’s biggest debts are owed, first, to the Clintons themselves, who loaned the campaign $11 million, and to Mark Penn and his firm, the candidate’s chief strategist and pollster.

Mrs. Clinton has made clear that she herself doesn’t expect to be paid back. But, Penn apparently does. To say he is not well-liked is an understatement; I’m not sure you could convince the majority of Hillary supporters, much less a critical mass of Obama donors, to dig into their own pockets to line his. Fairly or not, Penn made no friends in this campaign, and the fact that he is, personally, richer than most of us will ever be in our lifetimes (not to mention his announement that he is joining forces with Bush loyalist Karen Hughes) certainly doesn’t make it any easier to beat the bright blue bushes to pay him the millions he’s owed.

Many of Hillary’s supporters believe he let her down in “missing” the message of change that came to dominate the campaign, not to mention underestimating the importance of the caucus states to the ultimate delegate tally. Penn’s defenders, of whom there are a (very) few, point out that in emphasizing experience, he did no more than play the hand he was dealt; and that the failure of the campaign to focus adequately on the caucuses was someone else’s fault (Patti Solis Doyle, currently of the Obama campaign, or longtime loyalist and ace rules junkie Harold Ickes), not Penn’s; that the pollster did not control the allocation of resources. Maybe not, but the guy who would’ve gotten the lion’s share of the credit had she won is bound to be blamed when she loses.

So with all these problems, why should the Obama folks help Hillary? The biggest reason, speaking purely politically, is because it will look bad if they don’t.

Obama is the one on the ballot this fall, and he needs as much money – and support – as the Democratic base can offer. No one can yet say with any certainty just how much race will matter in the fall, but the last thing Obama needs is a party that’s split from within. It won’t do for Hillary’s future for her to be blamed for an Obama defeat in November, but it also won’t do for Obama to look like the biggest fundraiser in political history was unwilling to help out his former rival. Hillary’s supporters will never believe that he couldn’t help her pay off the vendors; they’ll assume that he wouldn’t.

Fundraising, particularly in the high donor world, is not rocket science. A big piece of it is simply about making rich people feel like they’re as important as they are rich. When I first started doing it, I was more than a little stunned at how much time and effort goes into creating “tiers” at events that give the best goodies to the biggest donors and fundraisers; about all the business with titles and pins and even different colored nametags, not to mention the complicated systems of keeping track of exactly who gets “credit” for which donations. I thought the budget for “trinkets” was absurd, and the attention to titles just plain silly; why should people who have plenty of titles in their professional lives care so much about who is on the “steering committee” and who is a “national co-chair” or “vice chair”?

News flash: they do. Maybe that’s why they’re rich and I’m not. But the Obama campaign needs to start handing out the titles to the Hillary people, and finding a way to convince their donors that paying the copy shop. If not, the Clintons and Mark Penn, is important not only for Hillary Clinton’s future, but also for Barack Obama’s.

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 female 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