DENVER, Colo.–Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild sat in total darkness, the curtains of her downtown Denver hotel drawn closed. It was late in the morning of Monday, Aug. 25, a day before Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom de Rothschild had raised vast sums for as a “HillRaiser,” was slated to take the podium at the Democratic National Convention here. Clinton is to speak to the 18 million people who voted for her on behalf of the man who’d outlasted her during the Democratic primaries, Sen. Barack Obama
But de Rothschild was having none of it — none of the reconciliation efforts that had been going on since Clinton stepped away from the race; none of the measures the Obama camp had made to spotlight the Clintons during the convention, and none of Obama and his supporters within the Democratic Party.
“It feels like this is the last big party before a general election that the Democrats are sure to lose,” said de Rothschild, who was wearing a button honoring Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the late Ohio congresswoman, and fervent Clinton supporter, who died last week from a brain aneurysm. “It’s the political equivalent of re-arranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. It feels like that because of the polls. The pick of Joe Biden telescoped that Barack Obama knows his weaknesses. He doesn’t have experience in foreign policy and he does not connect well to ordinary people, and Joe Biden doesn’t fix that. He just magnifies the problem. He’s a fine guy. I want him to go back to the Senate.”
The fact that the rhetoric by de Rothschild and others like her remains so virulent exposes the obstacles that the Democratic Party faces as it tries to move forward to a historic presidential victory. As of this writing, Obama and McCain are in a dead heat. Now while some like de Rothschild find themselves at a loss at what to do, others have made the decision to move forward for the sake of the party or leave it to its own devices this time around.
This standoff might only be a fleeting moment–something Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, could wipe away with their appearances here at the Pepsi Center. As Obama demonstrated with his galvanizing speech four years ago, speeches can have great effect. Hillary Clinton could well display that same kind of power — and in so doing re-energize her supporters, commanding the different factions of her alliance to put aside harsh feelings and come together in support of Obama.
“I think the majority of Hillary supporters are coming back and coming home,” said David R. Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who has previously served as a White House adviser to Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. “The purpose of the convention is to help bring back that group who’s undecided since they’re persuadable. [Clinton] has to say in a full-throated, emotional way how strongly she feels about the party uniting.”
For quite some time now, de Rothschild and other prominent Clinton supporters — including Jill Iscol, the New York political fund-raising power, and Susie Tompkins Buell, the co-founder of Espirit and a power in her own right — had pushed hard for a place for Clinton on Obama’s ticket. It would unify the party, they said, and heal the wounds of what had been a vicious primary contest. Moreover, it would allow Obama to reach the millions of working-class men and women that Clinton had brought together during her campaign.
But with the selection of Sen. Joe Biden on Saturday, that dream is dead. Now, as delegates readied themselves for their four-day festival, de Rothschild was among the 27 percent of Clinton supporters still undecided about whether they should throw their support to Obama.
As much as anything, she represents a new, fundamental rift within the party that was no longer about Obama vs. Clinton, but about an existential crisis of Clinton supporters themselves. On one side, according to a recent Wall Street Journal Poll 52 percent of Clinton supporters polled now support Obama, just as Clinton had asked them to. But 21 percent had told The Wall Street Journal they would support McCain. Another 27 percent, like de Rothschild, were uncommitted.
“I didn’t think it would happen because it is not in the character of Barack Obama to admit his weaknesses,” de Rothschild continued, analyzing the Biden choice. “I think his ego is sooooo out of proportion — so he could not admit he needed her so. I never thought he would do it. He doesn’t even reach out to the largest Clinton fund-raisers — he doesn’t think he needs them. So he shouldn’t be surprised that they’ll write a check for him out of party loyalty — but they won’t work hard for him.
“Short of having her on the ticket,” de Rothschild noted, “the rest is window-dressing. He doesn’t like the Clintons. And the people in the smoke-filled rooms of the Democratic Party, the super-delegates, have given the nomination to Barack Obama. And people who are not going to agree with the choice of Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean will do so because Hillary tells them to — because she loves the party. There’s no question that she loves her party.
“The loyalty of the Clintons to the Democratic Party is bullet-proof,” de Rothschild said, “They are showing more loyalty to this party than anyone could expect them to. The people who are disloyal to the principles of this party are Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi. Howard Dean did nothing to speak out about sexism during the primary. Howard Dean contrived a rules committee meeting that was the ultimate corruption. Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi took 18 million people and trashed them by saying, ‘You don’t matter. Obama is our man. The left-wing has won.’ So there’s no one more loyal to the Democratic Party than the Clintons.”
Historically, no matter how mad party members are, they’ve usually come back to their roots. But perhaps that era has passed. Beginning in 1980 with Ronald Reagan and the advent of the Reagan Democrats who were fed up with the incumbent President Jimmy Carter, we’ve seen a weakening of the traditional party system. More people consider themselves independents than at any time in U.S. history. As a result, Americans are much more drawn to the man or, in the case of Clinton, the woman, rather than which side of the isle he or she chooses to represent.
Yet as Clinton takes the stage tonight, and division within her party still looms, some of her major supporters have already accepted the party’s likely choice. Though they once worked closely with De Rothschild, they now stand on the opposite side. This includes well-heeled supporters like Bal Das, the New York attorney, and Christina Lurie whom, alongside her husband Jeffrey, owns the Philadelphia Eagles.
In a phone conversation Sunday evening, Das shared none of the animosity that de Rothschild expressed the next day. From the first conference call Clinton held with donors to implore them to support Obama, DAs has been the most-loyal foot soldier. He met with the presumed candidate when Obama visited New York for a fund-raiser and came away satisfied — his doubts about the young senator’s ability to govern gone. Das was further encouraged by Obama’s selection of Biden — a sort of older adviser and sounding-board, the Alfred to Obama’s Bruce Wayne.
“My own personal view,” Das said, “has been, up until the last minute Sen. Clinton would have — in one strike — added the most advantage to the Democratic ticket. That said, Obama had the advantage of having a selection of many very good people. Short of Sen. Clinton, I think Sen. Biden was the next best choice.
“I had the chance to meet him in June,” Das continued, ” and I think he is someone who has a wonderful life story and, more importantly, not only will help Obama as an experienced running mate but also will help Obama rebuild bipartisanship in Washington. There has been a small set of people who don’t believe this. But, as momentum begins to gather I think more and more of that sub-section will rally around Obama. When people begin to look at the positions of Sen. Clinton versus that of Sen. McCain,, I think they will find the similarities in positions between Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama quite amazing.”
Lurie echoed that sentiment when she said, “I think picking Joe Biden is a very sound choice. He’s a sound pick. I think he’s a really decent person…. Obama picking him is reassuring. It shows that he’s surrounding himself with strong people.”
As for the split among Clinton supporters, Lurie said, “People have to decide what they want for the next four years. It is time to move on. This race is between John McCain and Barack Obama. It’s no longer about Hillary Clinton.”
Ah, if only it were that easy. For nearly a year-and-a-half, this election was all about Clinton. It was about Clinton’s failure in Iowa, about her finding her own voice and personal strength at different moments when she’d been declared politically finished. It also showed the great schism that existed among voters in big and small states, as Clinton steamrolled through big states while Obama methodically won a collection of smaller ones.
Now, without her, one is right to ask whether Obama can win in places where members of his own party chose his opponent by telling margins. An even deeper question is whether he can shed his sometimes ultra-liberal label to move to the yellow line – to be considered by independents as one of their own, a centrist.
“States like New York and California that are deeply Democratic states will go for him,” de Rothschild said. “What he cannot win are the states John Kerry lost. He’s not going to win Missouri. He’s not going to win Florida. Hillary won West Virginia by 30 points. West Virginia is McCain because we didn’t put Hillary there. So many Republicans would have come over to vote for Hillary Clinton, but the left and Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t let it happen. So we’re going to be the minority party. The loyal Democrats, the true Democrats, are going to be the ones that are going to be upset by that because we want to win. We don’t want a loser. We don’t want somebody who’s not qualified to be president.
“He’s trying to aggregate all of his principles to the center but it’s not going to work,” she continued. “People aren’t stupid. They think people are all fools who are going to not go beyond Obama’s words and not look at a Democratic Party that’s putting its cigarettes in the eyes of the Clintons. This party wins when we care about people’s problems deep down, not only when we think people’s problems are the price of arugula or say they’re ‘bitter’ with their religion and their guns. We don’t connect. We don’t work that way as a party. Maybe there’ll be some miracle and those impressions will all be erased, but I doubt it.”
So, um does that mean de Rothschild will put her robust financial backing and influence behind McCain?
“I haven’t decided,” de Rothschild said. “I’m going to wait for both vice presidential candidates and I’m going to wait after both conventions. It would feel awful. I have been such a loyal Democrat my entire life. I’m proud of what Bill Clinton has done for this nation and I feel so good for being a tiny, tiny part of giving America the best president we’ve had since F.D.R. To leave that party, for even one election, would hurt me. It would be based much more in sadness than anger. But it’s a principled decision. I’m going to deal with the facts as I see them.”
Such sentiments only reflect how much work the Democratic Party has to accomplish and how much work Obama needs to do. A large group of Democrats still believe that Obama was naive to think that he and Biden could do it together without Clinton’s help.
In many ways her role in this election has only grown since her concession to the junior senator from Illinois. She is, after all, a force who built a coalition of women and working-class Democrats that needs to stand together should the Democrats put Obama into the Oval Office.
Beginning Tuesday evening, Clinton must do more than be a surrogate. She must be a new kind of power broker. Clinton must give a speech greater than the one she gave at the National Building Museum in Washington, when she officially ended her campaign, putting a temporary end to the Clinton Dynasty. Because it’s only through her words and actions, that she can heal fractures within the base that she built.