When Senator Hillary Clinton’s image loops on the cable news these days, she’s likely to be seen as the hardheaded member of the Senate Armed Services committee, grilling a Bush administration official on the U.S.’s vulnerability to North Korea’s nuclear program or the state of American military hardware in Iraq.
But as Mrs. Clinton and her aides return to loyal supporters to finance her re-election campaign, she reverts to that familiar persona of Clinton White House days: First Victim, and the target of a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy of shadowy operatives (think Swift Boat Veterans for Truth), deep-pocketed right-wing foundations and rabid bloggers.
It’s a sophisticated piece of politics, playing to two of America’s beloved archetypes: the cowboy and the victim. And it’s already paying off.
She has backed the Iraq war and refused to endorse same-sex marriage-all seemingly without alienating her loyal supporters to the left. Meanwhile, she constantly reminds those same supporters that liberalism is under attack from the outside and that there are lots of right-wing fanatics who are out to get her.
But the notion of a monolithic “Stop Hillary” movement dissolves on closer examination. As they did in 1999 and 2000, Republican operatives and conservative activists are winning headlines with threats to raise millions of dollars to derail Mrs. Clinton’s ambitions. But if 2000 is any lesson, those groups will probably do more harm than good to the anti-Clinton cause. A survey of the main groups positioning themselves against Mrs. Clinton appears to show that, since 1999, they’ve raised a tiny fraction of the amount she has raised-in part, from campaign mailings warning of their attacks.
“I don’t think we’re playing the victim. We’re just trying to be realistic,” said Ann Lewis, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign communications director. “If we went into this without showing concern, it would be irresponsible. We need to be prepared for attacks that we’re told are coming from several directions.”
If those attacks weren’t coming, Mrs. Clinton would have been well advised to invent them. The Senator’s fund-raising appeals, which brought in nearly $4 million in the first quarter of this year, put it a bit more sharply.
“Right-wing activists are determined to run the same kind of attacks against Hillary [as they ran against Senator John Kerry]. Their web sites and direct mail boast that they will have an even better funded anti-Hillary campaign than they had last time,” reads one fund-raising e-mail from December. “We have to have the funds on hand even before the campaign begins, so that we can respond right away.”
An even better-funded anti-Hillary campaign than last time? Well, it turns out that won’t be very hard. Take, for example, the Emergency Committee to Stop Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Founded in April 2000 by a group of B-list Republican celebrities like Edwin Meese and Alan Keyes, the group promised to raise $9 million to derail the First Lady’s bid for Senate. Letters went out to Republican donors describing the group as a sort of proto–Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, promising attacks “much tougher” than the ones coming from Mrs. Clinton’s opponent, Rick Lazio.
What launched with a bang ended in a whimper. The Emergency Committee produced a single flyer. Federal filings indicate that the group’s total spending against Mrs. Clinton fell more than $8.8 million short of that $9 million target.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because a new round of very similar-sounding talk has begun. One fading Republican political consultant, Arthur Finkelstein, has floated the group Stop Her Now with a promise to raise $10 million and much media fanfare-but no money, no Web site and only a modest telephone fund-raising operation. His group joins StopHillaryPac.com, a Web site run by John LeBoutillier, a former Republican Congressman who told The Observer that he is “frustrated” at the site’s failure to raise money. There are also a handful of even more obscure Internet-based efforts.
Within conservative political circles, the new groups are viewed as the paper-thin product of aging Republican operatives looking for a payday and marginal conservative pundits eager for 15 minutes on Fox News. Among the six anti-Hillary Web sites (with names like Hildabeast and Blogs Against Hillary) turned up in a quick search, none advertised more than a few hundred visits a day, and most seemed to have fewer visitors. In 2000, conservatives around the nation did send millions to Mr. Lazio, but the much-hyped outside groups had no impact at all on the contest. This year, Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raising appeals have, at times, revolved around the coming conservative threat-but the threat is much, much less than meets the eye.
Anti-Clinton crusaders “seem to think you can just sit back and have money pour in from the Internet,” said Brendan Quinn, a former executive director of the New York State Republican Party. “You can’t.”
While Mrs. Clinton’s aides talk up the threat, there are signs that the Senator is less worried about it. Ms. Lewis cited 527′s-the loosely regulated groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth-as a key part of why 2006 could be a dangerous year for the Senator, but Mrs. Clinton has yet to take a public position on bipartisan legislation that would severely limit the activities of those groups, which are known by their section number in the tax code. Harold Ickes, a close advisor to both Clintons, heads America Coming Together, a 527 seen as a crucial adjunct to Democratic Presidential campaigns like the one Mrs. Clinton is positioned to make in 2008. And at an appearance before a New York group last week, Ms. Lewis said the legislation was in the process of being “improved” to permit liberal advocacy groups-and so, presumably, conservative ones-to continue to spend.
So who is this motley crew of anti-Hillary conspirators? Well, this year’s crop hasn’t entirely taken shape yet, and perhaps Mr. Finkelstein will be the first to succeed in the niche. But a rundown of the groups who waged war on Mrs. Clinton in 2000-when her husband was still in the White House and Hillary-hating seemed to be at its peak-is instructive.
The Emergency Committee appeared to be the most serious. The creation of Morton Blackwell, a conservative activist and former Reagan administration official, the committee was an arm of Mr. Blackwell’s Conservative Leadership Political Action Committee. In its letter to donors, the group promised to play hardball, promising to be “much tougher with our ads and ‘voter communication’ programs than the Lazio campaign.”
But then Mr. Lazio and Mrs. Clinton concluded a pact to discourage their allies from making independent expenditures on their behalf. Mr. Blackwell said he would have been willing to violate this pact-after all, the definition of independent groups, under campaign-finance law, is that they don’t take instructions from the campaigns. But Mr. Blackwell said he feared that his own anti-Hillary spending wouldn’t be able to match the money which independent groups backing Mrs. Clinton would raise.
In the end, Mr. Blackwell’s group spent $153,000 on a mailing, and another $30,000 shooting television advertisements that never aired.
But Mr. Blackwell still had more impact than the other anti-Clinton groups that surfaced that season.
There was, for example, Conservatives for Effective Leadership, run by radio host Gary Nolan, who came out firing the day that Mrs. Clinton announced she was forming an exploratory committee. Mr. Nolan promised to raise $10 million for television advertisements and told reporters he was teaming up with Republican P.R. man Craig Shirley. According to press reports at the time, he sent out a letter to 40,000 potential donors warning that “the liberals want Hillary to be president” and that “she’s a committed radical Marxist to boot!”
Mr. Nolan soon abandoned the effort, however, and went on to lose the 2004 Libertarian Party Presidential primary.
Mr. Shirley said he recalled the whole episode only vaguely. “I don’t know what ever happened to that,” he said.
Other groups founded to stop Mrs. Clinton’s first run fared similarly. In August of 2000, for example, James Fotis, the president of the conservative Law Enforcement Alliance of America, registered a group called Americans Against Hillary. The group never raised a penny.
“They reserved some domain names and registered a P.A.C. and had all these grandiose ideas, but it never went anywhere,” recalled Mr. Fotis’ spokesman, Kevin Watson.
Perhaps the most successful Stop Hillary operation of 2000-at least by its creator’s telling-was Stop Hillary Now (www.stophillarynow.net), run by a Long Island man with a background in advertising and a rather loose interpretation of federal campaign-finance regulations.
“We had a lot of fun,” recalled the site’s owner, Nick Giroffi of Hicksville, who sold bumper stickers for $1 each off the site. His favorite sticker read “Kiss My New York Ass Hillary,” and Mr. Giroffi said he’d sold more than 60,000 of them, using the proceeds to finance a small plane that flew over the beaches of Long Island’s South Shore with an anti-Hillary banner.
Mr. Giroffi said he conducted the whole operation out of pocket with local friends and allies he met on the Free Republic Web site, and he added that his out-of-date Web site is still generating interest.
“Whenever Hillary gets on TV and she says something, a week later my post-office box is jammed with requests for bumper stickers,” he said.
And then there’s the Stop Hillary Political Action Committee, founded in 2001 and based in Pennsylvania, with a treasury of $78. Its treasurer, Ted Delgaizo, could not be reached for comment.
Drawing on Bile
Despite the failures of these outside groups, Mrs. Clinton’s name still generated conservative gold. Mr. Lazio spent almost $40 million, much of it raised through national appeals that dwelled more heavily on Mrs. Clinton’s flaws than on Mr. Lazio’s voting record.
But even that well of direct funding may be drying up, said Richard Viguerie, the father of conservative direct-mail solicitations, who worked for Rudy Giuliani’s abortive Senate run in 2000.
“The fund-raising’s going to be three, four times as hard for the Republican candidate than it was in 2000,” Mr. Viguerie said. “People are smart, and the people with money, they know who’s running a credible campaign. Unless there’s some superstar that comes in [to run against Mrs. Clinton], which I don’t expect, then it’s going to be tough sledding.”
Attorney Edward Cox, Richard Nixon’s son-in-law, has been mentioned as a possible candidate, along with State Health Commissioner Antonia Novello.
And if the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy didn’t come through for Mr. Lazio last time around, it’s not looking much stronger in 2006.
Mr. Finkelstein clearly tops the list of conspirators, with a credibility earned running sharp-edged campaigns for Jesse Helms, Alfonse D’Amato and George Pataki. But Mr. Finkelstein is best known these days for marrying his male partner in Massachusetts and for giving an interview in an Israeli newspaper in which he attacked the Christian right.
Republican political professionals are widely skeptical of Mr. Finkelstein’s ability to raise the money to launch a credible anti-Clinton campaign.
“What does Arthur Finkelstein have to generate that type of interest?” asked Mr. Quinn, the former state party director. Early indications aren’t encouraging for the anti-Clinton crusaders. A collaborator of Mr. Finkelstein’s said the group isn’t seeking large donations.
“Swift Boat [Veterans for Truth] first raised money in big, huge chunks from very wealthy donors-and that’s fine, but we envision Stop Her Now as basically the reverse of that,” said the Finkelstein associate, William Black.
The New York State Republican Party has tried to cash in on anti-Clinton sentiment in the past in its fund-raising appeals, but G.O.P. officials have said that they’ll try to keep such personalization out of the 2006 Senate race (a line that proved hard to draw in 2000). Another conservative group, the United States Justice Foundation, recently adopted the central figure in an investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s 2000 fund-raising. But the fund-raiser, Peter Paul, appears unlikely to make a compelling spokesman for the anti-Clinton cause: Just released from a two-year stint in a Brazilian prison, he was recently convicted of stock fraud in a U.S. court.
So Mr. Finkelstein’s main rival this cycle appears to be Mr. LeBoutillier, a former one-term Congressman from Long Island who gained notoriety in the early 1980′s when he referred to House Speaker Tip O’Neill as the personification of the federal government: “big, fat and out of control.” The remark cost the young Congressman his seat in the next election, and he’s now a columnist for the conservative Web site NewsMax and an occasional Fox News commentator.
Mr. LeBoutillier’s effort, based at http://www.stophillarypac.com, has raised all of “a few thousand dollars,” he told The Observer. “We’re getting some traffic, but we’re not getting donations.”
Mr. LeBoutillier’s closest readers may be on Mrs. Clinton’s staff.
A week after Mr. LeBoutillier launched his Web site, Clinton fund-raiser Patti Solis Doyle was quoting the former Congressman in an e-mail to potential donors and asking them to “help Hillary fight back.”
“She has raised more than we have” off StopHillaryPac, Mr. LeBoutillier said.
That recognition has led some Republicans to wonder whether the Stop Hillary mini-campaigns aren’t doing themselves more harm than good.
“Both Clintons have benefited from the fact that they drive Republican political consultants insane and we start to do things that, to the undecided voters, seem to be nutty,” said Nelson Warfield, who was the press secretary to Bob Dole’s 1996 Presidential bid. “It makes her a victim; it makes us seem like we’re off-balance.”
To that critique, Mr. LeBoutillier had a rejoinder-one informed by his dark view of the former First Lady.
“What am I going to do?” he asked. “If I don’t do it and these other groups don’t do it, she’d just make it up anyway.”