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Raising Money: A True Test of Unity

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/clintonnice2-barbara-kinney.jpgSen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) (Barbara Kinney, Flickr.com)

Early on the evening of July 9, a former Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter found herself standing outside the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt in midtown New York. She had paid $1,000 to see Sen. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee for president, speak and yet felt strange. For months, through a bitter and divisive campaign, she had supported his rival. Now she had given serious green to see the man whom she once fought against. She said she felt, well, out of it.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Wrapping her hand tightly around her pearls, the woman, who declined to give her name, finally said: “Well, I’m trying to, I don’t know. I’m at a little loss for words.” And with that she rushed off — left to consider where she was and who she was for.

She was not alone in her existential crisis. Last week a poll conducted by CNN and Opinion Research Corp. found that nearly a third of those who supported Clinton during the primaries now say they would rather not cast any vote than vote for Obama. Earlier this week, an examination of campaign-finance records conducted for The Wall Street Journal by the Center for Responsive Politics revealed that only one of 300 “HillRaisers” — supporters who had raised more than $100,000 for Clinton — had formally supported Obama in May. The article went on to report that 115 people who’d given at least $1,000 for Clinton had donated money to the presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain — a figure equal to those who did the same for Obama.

Indeed, while the Republican Party struggles with ideological issues, the Democratic Party is still dealing with personal ones. The Democratic primaries were more about identity than issues, more about sheer devotion to one man or one woman than widely differing beliefs. The millions who participated in the campaign fell in love, real love with these people and developed antipathy, real antipathy against the other side. Now, the two avatars have decided to play nice, to join hands — but the question still remains whether their devotees will do the same.

Wednesday was the first test. While the woman who’d spent more than a year devoting herself to putting the first woman in the Oval Office, the Manhattan evening was just beginning. So, too, was the true mending of the Clinton-Obama rift. While both leading Democratic candidates had stood together in Unity, N.H., on one hot, god-awful day, now they were touring together, raising money in joint efforts.

Symbolism in a place like tiny Unity was nice, they were now engaged in the real mechanism that drives political life in America: Bringing in cash. And while the two had publicly sheathed their swords, the question of whether this alliance was sustainable, whether this was real, loomed as the subtextual backdrop for everything to follow. Whether they’ll admit it or not, the Democratic Party leadership still finds its rank-and-file foot soldiers in the aftermath of battle, with distrust and anger and bad feelings still looming heavy as the general election approaches.

Things had begun peacefully enough. After canceling a first joint fund-raiser due to late votes in the Senate, the two–along with Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late president and prominent Obama supporter who’s on the committee to vet potential vice-presidential candidates–flew from Washington to New York together. They were heading to Clinton’s turf–the place at once so American, yet so apart from America.

Without Clinton, and with Kennedy at his side, Obama arrived at the early evening fund-raiser. It was the same hotel where, in 2007, Clinton celebrated her landslide Senate re-election and Eliot Spitzer, the one-time crusader for average Americans, stepped to the podium declaring a new day for Albany, and by proxy, America.

That now seemed like a dead era. Instead, Obama, surrounded by prominent Clinton supporters, lauded the accomplishments of Clinton, rattling off her accomplishments, calling her an inspiration for Americans and young women, a person who would be part of his solution to universal health care should he win in November.

Then something happened. Near the end of his 30-minute speech as he moved from his Clinton love song to his own grand promises about the Iraq war and the economy and environmental advances, Obama nearly walked off, seemingly forgetting the secondary reason he was there. Halting his signature exit song, Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” he stopped to remind people of the white form beneath each seat. It was a financial pledge to help with Clinton’s $12-million primary debt, which does not include the $11 million that Bill and Hillary Clinton personally donated to her campaign.

“It’s important to us,” Obama said. “And obviously it’s important to Mrs. Clinton, too.”

Standing outside of the ballroom afterward, Mark O’Friel–who had donated money to the Democratic Party in lieu of giving to any one candidate–said of any kind of existing division, “I supported who won and now that he’s won, I’m on his side. I’ve been to a lot of Democratic parties in the city and most people are like me. I don’t believe these stories that people who supported Hillary are going to support McCain. I don’t know one person from any of the New York heavy-hitters who are doing that.

“Both were strong candidates and both have flaws,” O’Friel said. “He lacks administrative experience and foreign policy experience. But he knows it and will overcome it.”

Later, Glen Newkirk and his wife Patricia pondered about their own fears about the lasting effects of the divisions brought to the forefront by the primaries. Letting out a long, deep sigh, Glen said, “I really think a lot of people will come around. They’re foolish if they don’t.”

“Democrats are contentious anyway,” his wife said. “That’s the nature of our tent.”

One got a better look at that tent this morning at the Hilton Towers. The previous evening, after the Grand Hyatt event, Clinton and Obama appeared with one another at — get this — a $31,000 per-person private dinner at the Regency Hotel. Now, they were together again, at a breakfast aimed primarily toward women — many of whom had supported Clinton so vehemently during the campaign.

“For some of us, it’s challenging,” said Shelia Healy, who had traveled south from Albany. “But I’m going to do what I can. I went home to Indiana to campaign for Hillary. I might do the same thing with Obama.”

But the event didn’t go as planned — at least for this reporter. While I expected to see angry Clinton supporters coming to see what the junior senator from Illinois had to say, what I found were one-time Clinton supporters who had long ago given their allegiance to Obama.

A supporter named Betty Crain had switched six months ago, explained, “Hillary became so much more of a politician. She is Washington. This Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton had to stop. Nobody wanted that–particularly in New York City.”

“I switched my mind after South Carolina,” said Bobba Jean Moody, “and what Bill Clinton said, comparing him to Jesse Jackson. He was saying, ‘He’s black and black candidates don’t win.’ I thought better of him. The Clintons were just so mean.”

As with the previous night, this morning morphed into a Clinton love-in. Obama’s sister Maya talked about all the women in Obama’s life — including Clinton. Given her chance to speak, the junior senator from New York called for a united family, about how much she and Obama shared and how her supporters shouldn’t hesitate about supporting him.

Like the night before, Obama laid it on thick for Clinton, again calling her a national inspiration and the goal of a more equal America that now seemed in reach. Together they stood, as they had in Unity, a seemingly happy couple. But so did Brad and Jennifer before Angelina came along.

“We’ve come so much closer to fulfilling that goal because of the extraordinary woman with whom I shared a stage so many times during this campaign as an opponent,” Obama said, “and now have the privilege of doing so as a partner – my friend, Sen, Hillary Clinton.”

Yet while the room exploded, there remained some stewing about how this new alliance had formed. During the last week, we’ve heard much about Clinton supporters still angry about what happened, about what they perceived was the sexist nature of the campaign. Prominent Obama supporters, meanwhile, have remained silent, still stewing over the constant and often personal attacks on their man, even after Clinton’s epic concession speech.

“Did he say she was going to be the running-mate?” said one convention delegate and Obama supporter, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “He praised her so much, that must mean he’s picking her. Why is he praising her so much? And he wants us to give money to her? I don’t think he should be praising her so much.”

With that, Obama and Clinton rode back to the airport, where they flew into Dulles together. Then that they went their separate ways.

Now we will learn whether their two camps can learn to trust one another as they did their candidates. The first cut, we learned from the former Cat Stephens, is always the deepest. Now they must try to love again.

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